Accounts Differ About Attack on Iraqi Village A pre-dawn fight in one Iraqi Shiite village left more than two dozen villagers dead. The U.S. military calls those they killed "criminals" and "terrorists." But witnesses say those who died were all civilians.
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Accounts Differ About Attack on Iraqi Village

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Accounts Differ About Attack on Iraqi Village

Accounts Differ About Attack on Iraqi Village

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

I'm Melissa Block.

And we begin today with an exclusive report from Iraq. On the morning of October 4th, American commandos landed by helicopter next to the Iraqi village of Jaisani in a remote farming area just north of Baghdad. They were after a suspected weapons trafficker with ties to Iran. Within an hour, more than two dozen Iraqis inside the village were dead or dying. A U.S. military press release called the dead criminals and terrorists.

Now, several Iraqi eyewitnesses tell NPR that the intelligence that spurred the raid was false. The eyewitnesses say those killed were innocent and included three women.

NPR's Tom Bowman has this report.

TOM BOWMAN: The men at the village checkpoint peered into the pre-dawn darkness. There was something out there, about 30 yards away. It was clear, said one eyewitness, that a ghost was moving.

Mr. THAMER MAHDI AL BAYATI (Engineer): (Speaking in foreign language).

BOWMAN: The guard shot two rounds at the ghost. The ghost responded by throwing a hand grenade at the checkpoint. Then heavy fire opened up at the checkpoint — machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.

Thamer Mahdi Al Bayati is a 35-year-old engineer. He was there that morning in the village of Jaisani, certain that once again al-Qaida in Iraq was attacking his Shiite village. The women and children ran to the west in what they thought was safe ground. Men dashed from their houses to the east side of the village, desperate to reinforce the checkpoint.

Mr. AL BAYATI: (Speaking in foreign language).

BOWMAN: The whole area hurried up to help their sons at the checkpoint and to face the expected attack by al-Qaida.

But it wasn't al-Qaida. It was a half dozen American soldiers from a secret special operations unit known as Task Force 17. An American source familiar with the mission tells NPR that the task force was formed to go after the so-called special groups of the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia group led by radical cleric, Moqtada al Sadr.

The Americans say these special groups smuggle in weapons from Iran, including components to make explosively formed penetrators — the most lethal kind of roadside bomb that can pierce through the thickest armor. On this morning, the Americans were after a suspected special groups commander, who was working with the Quds force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard to bring weapons into Baghdad.

Major Winfield Danielson is an American military spokesman in Baghdad.

Major WINFIELD DANIELSON (U.S. Army): They responded in self-defense. Enemy continued firing. They saw what they believed to be some kind of anti-aircraft off and coming out of the building and the aircraft engaged. And in all, they estimate that about 25 criminals were killed and that the buildings were destroyed.

BOWMAN: The American military has not investigated the incident. The number two American officer here, Lieutenant General Ray Odierno, assured reporters this week that every incident involving civilian deaths is investigated.

Danielson said the soldiers on the raid reported no civilians in sight.

Major. DANIELSON: Well, the people on the ground didn't report any civilians in the area. So there wasn't an investigation because that's the report we had from people on the ground.

BOWMAN: But a member of the Iraqi parliament, Dr. Ali Al Adeeb, has called for an independent investigation. NPR was put in touch with the eyewitnesses by another man named Ali(ph), who works for the U.S. in Iraq and comes from this village. Hs employment was verified by an American official who asked not to be identified. Among those who were there that morning was Ali's 21-year-old fiancee, Nasser.

NASSER (Eyewitness, Ali's Fiancee): (Through translator) Hearing the shooting outside, my brother, who was sleeping on the roof, took his weapon and went out to join the other fighters, but later he was killed. The two houses adjacent to our house were completely demolished. A whole family was killed — the mother, the father. My brother was also killed there, too.

BOWMAN: Facing more fire, the Americans brought in what a press release later called supporting aircraft, and what a source says were two Apache attack helicopters and an AC-130 gunship - one of the most powerful weapons in the American arsenal, something like a flying battleship, able to shoot artillery shells the size of fireplace logs.

NASSER: (Through translator) When we heard the helicopters firing missiles, we thought that they came to our rescue because we have always maintained good relations with the Americans. We like the Americans. And when we heard the bombing, we never imagined they were attacking us. It was the first time we came under attack by the Americans.

BOWMAN: The villagers say they dropped their weapons once they realized were American helicopters.

Ayad Kadhum Hassan was sleeping 100 yards away on his roof. He ran to the scene.

Mr. AYAD KADHUM HASSAN (College Lecturer): (Speaking in foreign language)

BOWMAN: We checked the place and found dead bodies on the ground. Hands and legs were scattered about. That's what we saw. We started to help the wounded. Later, we came to know American airplanes were doing the bombing.

BOWMAN: Other villagers tried to find cover from the intense American fire.

Mr. HASSAN: (Speaking in foreign language).

BOWMAN: Some of those who got martyred were hiding between a wall made of clay and a palm tree. But the rocket targeted them directly. We saw body parts.

Thamer says the wounded were gathered up and taken to a hospital. But the main road was too dangerous because of roadside bombs planted by al-Qaida. They were forced to take a longer route - a winding dirt road.

Mr. AL BAYATI: (Speaking in foreign language).

BOWMAN: We managed to take our wounded to Al Kalis Hospital. Four of them were dead, martyred on the way to the hospital because of the long distance.

And one other woman died in a Baghdad hospital, bringing the death toll to 27. That day, the villagers say they contacted the American military at the nearby base, called Warhorse. Stationed there are soldiers from the Fourth Stryker Brigade Combat Team. Thamer says the officers told him they knew nothing of the raid. The villagers also sent a letter to the Americans, asking for an apology, compensation for the victims. There has been no response.

Maj. DANIELSON: I have not seen that letter. I have not gotten confirmation that that letter exists.

BOWMAN: Maj. Danielson says the U.S. military is willing to talk about the mission with those from the village.

Maj. DANIELSON: If local leaders want to meet with the military officials in the area and discuss it, we're more than happy to do that. I mean, we're here to protect them.

BOWMAN: Another American military officer familiar with the mission called it a good shoot, based on firm intelligence about a weapons trafficker. The officer, who asked not to be identified, says there was no wrongdoing — just a tragic situation.

But the villagers strongly deny any Mahdi Army special group members were among them. They believe the Americans were fed false information about supposed Iranian influence by local Sunnis angered that the villagers had ousted the Sunni group al-Qaida in Iraq.

Again, Nasser, Ali's fiancee.

NASSER: (Through translator) No, there were no Iranians. But because we proved extremely brave in the fighting, the Americans accused us of bringing Iranian fighters to fight by our side. And they claimed that we had brought in Iranian weapons. All our fighters came from our village and not from outside.

BOWMAN: The bodies of the dead villagers were collected and wrapped in blankets that day. Muslim custom says the dead must be buried before sundown. They were placed in cars and trucks and a long motorcade coursed its way south to Najaf, one of Shiite Islam's holiest cities. The villagers say Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country's top Shiite religious leader, donated a burial plot in Najaf when he heard about the attack.

At the graveyard, Thamer says the village women were inconsolable.

Mr. AL BAYATI: (Speaking in foreign language).

BOWMAN: The mothers tore at their clothes, they beat their heads. They were saying, God is greater than America.

The village checkpoint was normally manned by those 20 or older. Now 12-year-olds and women are ready to stand at the defenses, says Thamer. We are ready to die for Jaisani.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Baghdad.

BLOCK: And you can read eyewitness accounts of the attack on the village of Jaisani. That's at npr.org.

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