ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
Every day in the streets of Baghdad, American troops are subject to random attacks by insurgents who blend into the civilian population. Every vehicle on the crowded roads is a potential bomber, and any suspicious behavior can draw American fire. Innocent civilians are killed, breeding resentment and sympathy for the insurgents. This is the story of one such encounter between two men, nearly the same age, from opposite sides of the world.
SIEGEL: Sergeant Joe Romero shot and killed Dr. Yasser Salihee on June 24, 2005. The Army found the shooting justified under the rules of engagement. Iraqi witnesses saw it as murder.
NPR's Jacki Lyden and John McChesney report on the shooting, which had a profound impact on everyone, soldiers on the street that day, Iraqis in the neighborhood, families of the shooter and the victim, even the man who investigated the incident.
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JOHN MCCHESNEY reporting:
To tell this story, we begin in a garden on Convent Street in Lafayette, Louisiana, Cajun country, behind the home of Joe Romero's parents. When Romero, now 33, was a boy, says his mother, he wanted to be a soldier. His father, a Vietnam pilot, died in a plane crash before his birth. Carrie Durand says even as a young boy Joe loved the Louisiana swamps. One night he went missing.
Ms. CARRIE DURAND (Joe Romero's mother): Well, he had decided it would be fun to camp out in some woods that weren't too far away. But he got hungry, because when he skinned the lizard he found out there just wasn't enough to eat. Hunting, fishing, anything outdoors has been his life. He just loves it.
MCCHESNEY: Romero grew up to become an elite Army Ranger and sniper. He left the Army briefly, but after 9/11 he wanted to serve his country again. He joined the Louisiana National Guard, 256 Combat Brigade, arriving in Iraq in October of 2004. A dozen people we spoke to in the 256 described him the same way, an excellent soldier.
Private COREY PRINCE (National Guardsman): When you looked at him, you could just tell that, you know, he was the man.
MCCHESNEY: Private Corey Prince served under Romero in Baghdad.
Private PRINCE: He was intimidating, this guy could do more push-ups than any drill sergeant you ever had. If something was wrong with you, then he's going to fix it and he's going to make sure you remember to fix it next time.
MCCHESNEY: But Joe Romero's military career would end in bitter controversy and a 14-month jail term. He was tried and convicted not for the shooting but for the possession and distribution of drugs. He's still in military prison.
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JACKI LYDEN reporting:
Thank you for having us here. What is going on tonight here?
Unidentified Male #1: What's going on?
LYDEN: Yasser Salihee was a 30-year old Sunni physician at Baghdad's Yarmouk Hospital who sported wire-rimmed glasses and a western buzz cut. Married to a fellow doctor, they had a two-year-old daughter, Danya. But when the chance came to translate for foreign journalists, including NPR, he jumped at the chance. His first assignment was translating for the sister of the slain politician Aki Alhashame, who was assassinated in the fall of 2003.
Dr. YASSER SALIHEE: Actually during her life I was her shadow.
LYDEN: At the time of his death, Salihee was working for Knight-Ridder newspapers with solo bylines, a rarity in the Iraqi press corps. Dr. Raghad Wazzan is Yasser Salihee's widow.
Dr. RAGHAD WAZZAN (Widow of Yasser Salihee): He told me many times, I hate medicine. I love to be a journalist. I'd ask, why, Yasser? Because he told me, I'm want to make all the world knowing what's happening inside Iraq. If I'm staying as a doctor treating the people and saving lives and I'm doing the both jobs when some explosion occur. I'm saving people and at the same time I'm trying to tell people the truth.
LYDEN: The Salihees moved to Amiriyah in western Baghdad, a former stronghold for the regime. Walls were painted in black slogans calling for the killings of Americans. Then came the morning of June the 24th, 2005. It was a Friday, the day of rest.
Dr. WAZZAN: We awake at 10:00 a.m. and Yasser, he want to bring the breakfast from the neighborhood and we took a breakfast as a family. Then we prepare to go to Alawayah Club for swimming and after being (unintelligible), he just asked me, Raghad, I want just to shave my hair. Give me just 10 minutes and I will come back. I'm waiting him for one hour. He never returned back.
MCCHESNEY: About the same time, a platoon with the 256th Bravo Company, along with Iraqi Army soldiers, rolled out into Amiriyah. Staff Sergeant Joe Romero volunteered to go along. Romero says snipers were not in big demand in Baghdad, so he had been stuck in a headquarters company. Romero wanted action. He speaks from military prison in Ft. Lewis, Washington.
Staff Sergeant JOE ROMERO (National Guardsman): I enjoyed going to work. I enjoyed doing my job. I enjoyed going out there. Because I lived for that rush to be out there and that's what I wanted to do.
MCCHESNEY: The four members of the patrol we spoke with say they were edgy that morning. The day before, another soldier from the unit, and a friend of Romero's, had been seriously wounded by a sniper's bullet at a major intersection. When the patrol reached that same intersection again, another shot rang out. They dismounted in haste, most of the platoon heading into a nearby building.
Romero and his partner, Christian Jones, positioned themselves so they could keep watch on the street outside. Iraqi soldiers took up position across from them and quickly stopped one car with hand signals and shouting. Joe Romero explains what happened next.
Sergeant ROMERO: Another vehicle started approaching, we could see it way down the road. It was coming straight at us at a rapid rate of speed and we were waving at it, start yelling and pointing our weapons to get it to stop. At that time, nothing stopped and I start making out the driver of the vehicle.
MCCHESNEY: Romero noted it was a single man driving a white vehicle, fitting the profile of a suicide car bomber. According to Iraqi and American witnesses we spoke with, all concur that the car was doing 30 to 40 miles an hour and was about 100 meters away. Romero now had about six seconds to make a life and death decision. He says that as he and his partner, Christian Jones, stepped into the middle of the street, they fired warning shots.
Sergeant ROMERO: I know I shot toward the hood of the vehicle, Sgt. Jones shot at the tire. And at this time, nothing's happened. The vehicle is still coming at a high rate of speed and I can make eye contact with the driver and he looks like he's crouching down behind the steering wheel. His hands at no point were up like he's trying to show me his hands and it looked like he was hiding behind the steering wheel. Vehicle kept coming, at this point it's roughly 30 to 25 meters from me when I had to fire my last shot. And I took a shot at his head.
MCCHESNEY: There are rules governing contact with civilians, which call for a gradual escalation in force, a warning shot, disabling shot and finally a lethal shot. Romero says he never saw Salihee hit the brakes after the warning shot. As the car rolled past him, Romero says he saw blood as the driver's hand dropped away from his head. Air was hissing from the tire shot out by Christian Jones.
LYDEN: Stores line the intersection on this corner in Amiriyah and shopkeepers challenge Romero's story. One of them, a 24-year old ice seller named Majeed Mahmoud Aboud, recounts that Jones and Romero took up positions next to his tiny metal kiosk on the corner. He insists, as does at least one other Iraqi witness, that the very first shot was the killing shot.
A member of NPR's Baghdad staff interviewed the ice seller, who didn't want to be recorded. A translator reads from the interview.
Mr. MAJEED MAHMOUS ABOUD (Iraqi witness): (Through translator) My mind is not like a computer, but I can remember this. It was a hot day and the Americans came in and they took the saw I used to cut the blocks of ice. I was chatting with the other shopkeepers when I saw the driver coming fast. There were four Iraqi National Guards on the street. When the driver saw the guy, he tried to stop, but as he hit the break, he was shot.
LYDEN: Another Iraqi witness, 47-year-old Bahjat Adnan, a clothing store owner, was also interviewed about the shooting by NPR Baghdad staff. Again, a translator reads the notes from the interview.
Mr. BAHJAT ADNAN (Iraqi witness): (Through translator) There were two kids in the middle of the street and they said, stop, the Americans are in the street and they will shoot you. This is what got my attention and made me turn around and look. I heard three shots. The first one was when the car tried to stop. The car screeched to a halt. I know that it was just a civilian guy who got shot and I don't know why he got shot, except that he was coming very fast.
LYDEN: A bullet, distorted by the heavy windshield glass, crushed the bones around Salihee's eye and made a gaping wound on the right side of his head. Romero had no doubt that the bullet was his. Others thought an Iraqi soldier might have fired the fatal shot.
NPR retrieved the bullet fragments from an Iraqi police station and an independent expert, hired by NPR, says the bullet did indeed come from an M14, the type of weapon Sergeant Romero said he was using. Members of the patrol say they searched the car, took pictures and found no weapons or explosives. Only Salihee's press credential and his cell phone.
After that, says Bahjat Adnan, they left.
Mr. ADNAN: (Through translator) They just left the body in the car, and after 10 minutes, the whole unit left.
MCCHESNEY: The order to leave the scene was repeated twice after the platoon commander questioned the decision. Salihee's body was left behind in his car as the temperature soared above 100 degrees. Again, Joe Romero.
Sergeant ROMERO: We left the guy in the street like a piece of meat, like a bad guy. I didn't understand it, didn't believe it and definitely did not agree with it. That's probably one of the most, one of the worst commands I've ever seen given.
MCCHESNEY: Platoon members say that the order to leave the scene was given by a battalion commander whose codename was Bandit Six.
Was your call sign Bandit Six?
Lieutenant Colonel DANIEL MCELMORE: That's correct.
MCCHESNEY: Lieutenant Colonel Daniel McElmore was the battalion commander that day, but he told us at brigade headquarters in Lafayette, Louisiana, that he didn't recall giving that order.
Lieutenant Colonel MCELMORE: I would say that that does not sound like the way that we conducted business in Baghdad.
LYDEN: At the scene, one of the eyewitnesses picked up Salihee's cell phone and started making phone calls. Dr. Raghad Wazzan, Salihee's widow, was the first to arrive. Aymen Salihee, Yasser's brother, was summoned.
Mr. AYMEN SALIHEE (Yasser Salihee's brother): When I saw the car and surround by, I think, two vehicles for Iraqi police, I just know that Yasser's gone. And I run to the car. I saw two guys try to throw me out away from the car. And I saw him and everything changed in my mind. I couldn't think. I think it's over for me, because, you know, Yasser is everything for me. He's not just my brother.
LYDEN: Romero's platoon drove by the shooting scene about 45 minutes later and saw Raghad Wazzan.
Sergeant ROMERO: I could see a lady outside of the vehicle with long reddish to blondish hair and she was crying on the side of the road. And I automatically knew it would be his wife or sister or something to that nature. And it sure didn't feel good to see somebody. And then we're not there on the scene of the crime to say what happened or nothing like this.
LYDEN: After an hour or two, Iraqi policemen arrived. They made a rudimentary sketch, noting a skid mark on the road behind the car. The shooting received international publicity. As in all such cases in the 256, an investigator was appointed. The investigator was Major Andre Vige and his first duty was to offer condolences.
Major ANDRE VIGE (National Guard investigator): The tension was so thick you could cut it with a knife. The elders of the family - I think they were not sympathetic towards what happened, but I think they were sympathetic towards me for having to be the one to go there.
And, of course, everyone wants to look at blame, and that's understandable. I guess in a sense, you're kind of looking for some magical answer to give them to make everything okay but there is nothing. There's nothing that you can do.
LYDEN: Dr. Raghad Wazzan remembers him coming.
Dr. WAZZAN: When he come, he start to cry. Yeah. He said, I'm sorry. I know your husband is so young. He said, I'm sorry for it happening, but what can I do?
LYDEN: Vige shared that his own father had been killed in a hunting incident, but Wazzan was not happy with the compensation offered for her husband's death.
Dr. WAZZAN: They present Yasser as the car. They pay for me 2,000 and a half for the car and 2,000 and a half for my husband. I'm telling him, he's a father, he's a son, he's doctor, he's a journalist. What you present this man? Is he like a machine?
MCCHESNEY: Major Vige found that the shooting was justified and that the only person at fault that day was Yasser Salihee. He sent a letter to NPR and we met with him on his ranch in southern Louisiana, where, sitting on the tailgate of his pickup truck, he read from the letter.
Major VIGE: I will state that Mr. Salihee would still be alive if he would've been more attentive and in tume with his environment, tragic as it may be. And with sympathy I hold for his family, I must admit that he was not very wise in his decision- making process on the day of the shooting. Mr. Salihee would've been with his family if, in fact, he would've been more alert.
MCCHESNEY: Vige's report did fault the unit for leaving the scene, saying it couldn't have had a positive impact on the local populous.
LYDEN: He's right. Mahmud Salman is a 48-year-old watch repairman whose shop was just beside Salihee's car. He speaks through a translator.
Mr. MAHMUD SALMAN (Iraqi witness): (Through translator) The Americans left the body in the car and it seemed to us that that was cold-blooded. Watching it, based on my experience, leaving the body that way, it will further increase the resistance and the people's hatred for Americans.
LYDEN: Shop owner 27-year-old Khalid Eider is another eyewitness who watched from his shop as soldiers left and Dr. Salihee remained slumped behind the wheel. He says he hated the Americans then. Interviewed by a member of NPR's Baghdad staff, he speaks through a translator.
Mr. KHALID EIDER (Iraqi witness): (Through translator) I still hate them, not just for that day but for what they're doing daily. We welcomed them because we thought they would rebuild our country. They have not rebuilt, but they have harmed us. They've proven daily that their occupier's objective is to get rid of us. They do not want to bring democracy in the wake of the dictator Saddam. I hope that Saddam and his entire dictatorship returns. He at least killed people far from our sight.
LYDEN: Aymen Salihee, frustrated with the Americans, made his own investigation, interviewing witnesses, visiting the morgue, photographing the bullet. When he did finally get the Vige report several months later, he thought it was a cover-up.
Mr. SALIHEE: The American soldiers is protected by law and do whatever they like. They just kill anyone without any permission to get punished.
LYDEN: In particular, Aymen felt that Major Vige should have mentioned in his summary that his own diagrams show Romero standing off to the side of the road, where he might not have been visible to someone coming up the street.
Vige's investigation did include interviews with three Iraqi eyewitnesses. The names are redacted. Two of those accounts match what Iraqis told NPR, that Yasser Salihee stopped his car, but the Americans fired on him anyhow. One said the driver was not paying attention when Iraqi soldiers tried to stop him. Aymen Salihee and most of the neighborhood believes his brother did stop.
MCCHESNEY: For his part, Joe Romero remains confident that he did the right thing and not one of his fellow soldiers or commanders we interviewed questioned his judgment on that day.
Sergeant ROMERO: I think about it every once in a while. But I can live with myself because I didn't murder the guy. If I had blatantly shot this guy, I don't know how I would be able to live with myself. He had a family, you know. But I can come to terms with it because I did what I needed to do at the time.
MCCHESNEY: According to John Dunlap, the chief law officer for the 256, the brigade investigated some 40 serious incidents involving injury or death to innocent Iraqi citizens during its year in Iraq. There's no way of comparing that number to the record of other units, since at the time, most commanders didn't release those figures.
The most publicized 256 case was the wounding of Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena and the death of her bodyguard. In another case, a family in a white pickup truck was shot, killing the parents. In late August, an Iraqi Reuters soundman was killed and a cameraman shot.
In all cases, the 256 found that the rules of engagement were properly followed and no disciplinary action was taken.
Mr. JOHN DUNLAP (National Guard investigator): You don't want to create an environment where the soldiers think that every time they pull the trigger, there's going to be an investigation.
MCCHESNEY: And, Dunlap says, it's important to understand that these investigations were carried out only to determine if the rules of engagement were followed and to capture lessons learned. They were not criminal investigations.
Mr. DUNLAP: Soldiers were called upon to make life and death decisions on a daily basis in snap seconds. And we did not want to create an environment where soldiers thought they were going to be second-guessed or prosecuted for making decisions that would save their life. Rule number one was to come home alive.
MCCHESNEY: Today in Iraq, commanders are trying to recalibrate the rules of engagement. Retired general Andrew Krepinevich is with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment.
General ANDREW KREPINEVICH (Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment): When you see some of these unintentional killings that still fall within the rules of engagement, it may not be the fault of the soldier. But at the end of the day, it's losing a battle. It's losing a battle for the center of gravity in this war, which is the population, the people of Iraq.
LYDEN: But the impact these killings have is not just on Iraqi civilians. Platoon Sergeant David Reith, who was on the street that day, says the memories of killing innocents, like Dr. Salihee, will always be with him.
Seargent DAVID REITH (National Guardsman): It happens a lot, it really does. You know, I think that was one of the hardest things I really had to deal with, was physically, myself, shooting somebody who really was not a bad person. He just, you know, did the wrong thing. That's just the hardest thing to deal with.
LYDEN: And this soldier in the 256th, who didn't want to be identified for fear of retaliation from command, says he's still trying to cope with killing innocent civilians. We've altered his voice.
Unidentified Soldier: It's a real hard situation to face. You know, sometimes you'll be in a firefight against two people and there's hundreds of people around them, which happened to myself and Sergeant Romero. I mean there's times when, you know, I felt I couldn't take being involved in one more innocent civilian being killed. You know, it just tears you up inside every time it happens. And I still don't deal with it. I've dreamt about going to war and being in the Army since I was a kid, like a lot of little boys. And I'm ashamed of everything that went on over there, truthfully.
LYDEN: But Major Andre Vige, the man who investigated the Salihee shooting, says the nature of the war in Iraq makes close-call shootings like this one inevitable.
Major VIGE: Now we can go back and we could hash it out from now until the end of time. It's not going to change that this guy is dead. If he would have had maintained full situational awareness, he would still be alive. Can't change it. Sorry for the family. There's nothing that I can do about it.
Hell, Romero doesn't want the poor guy dead because he's got to live that he fired that killing shot. But by the same token, he had a responsibility, as well as the doctor did. It's sad day when an innocent person's got to die. But you know what, that's part of the bad part of war. And innocent people, children, women, fathers, mothers, daughters are going to die. It's what war is all about. Can't change it.
MCCHESNEY: In the aftermath of this shooting, the lives of those closest to Joe Romero and Yasser Salihee have changed profoundly.
First, there's the former Army Ranger, Joe Romero, who joined the 256 Combat Brigade, Louisiana National Guard to go to war. He's appealing his case for the possession and distribution of drugs. He doesn't know what the future holds.
Sergeant ROMERO: I'll probably go back to Iraq as a civilian contractor or I was going to teach at sniper school for the National Guard. But with the charge I have on me, I have no clue what I'm going to do. I've spent 12 years of my life in the military so I don't know what I'm going to do.
LYDEN: Aymen Salihee, Yasser's brother, went to Mecca with his grieving parents, where he met foreign fighters from Tunisia and Pakistan. He turned down offers to avenge his brother's death. Iraqis should fight their own wars, he says, including the one against U.S. soldiers. But he doesn't want to join the fight.
Mr. SALIHEE: I'd like to get out of this (expletive) place, because I hate this place. I just lost everything. My future is not here, you know?
LYDEN: And Dr. Raghad Wazzan is raising her daughter and coming to terms with her late husband's death. Yasser, she feels, is at peace.
Dr. WAZZAN: I think that he is very happy now, because I saw him many times in my dreams in the paradise. And he is with me and Danya everywhere I go. I saw him beside me. I saw all the roads opening in front of me when I went to any area. So I feel that he's with me and his spirit with me and never leaving me at home.
LYDEN: In July of 2005, the U.S. Army began tracking the deaths of Iraqis killed at U.S. checkpoints or shot by U.S. convoys. In February, Lieutenant General Peter Chiarelli, the commander of day-to-day operations in Iraq, made preventing such deaths a priority. The number of these shootings has dropped from an average of one a day in 2005 to one a week today. And a new unit is patrolling western Baghdad.
I'm Jackie Lyden.
MCCHESNEY: And I'm John McChesney, NPR News.
SIEGEL: You can find documents and photos related to that investigation at NPR.org.