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Orphans of Tall Afar

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    What 15 seconds did to the Hassan family—and to the men of Apache Company. Orphans of Tall Afar Owen Matthews, Newsweek
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 4, 2005
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      What 15 seconds did to the Hassan family—and to the men of Apache
      Company.

      Orphans of Tall Afar
      Owen Matthews, Newsweek
      www.msnbc.msn.com/id/7245228/site/newsweek/


      Newsweek March 28 issue - Army investigators in Iraq have cleared
      Apache Company's soldiers of any wrongdoing. The men did what they
      were trained to do under the circumstances. Yet that's small comfort
      to the Hassan orphans. "If it were up to me, I'd kill the Americans
      and drink their blood," says Jilan, 14. Her 12-year-old brother,
      Rakan, was discharged from Mosul General Hospital this month.
      Doctors said his best hope of walking again is to seek treatment
      outside Iraq. At least he can move his legs. As far as he knows, his
      parents are in the hospital, recovering from the shooting. No one
      dares to tell him the truth.

      The Hassan family might have vanished into the war's statistics if
      Chris Hondros hadn't been at the scene that evening. The Getty
      Images photographer had spent the day on patrol with Apache Company.
      Readers have been asking NEWSWEEK about the Hassan orphans ever
      since we ran their picture in our Jan. 31 issue. We finally managed
      to find the youngsters in Mosul, sharing a three-room house with a
      married sister, her husband and at least three members of his
      family. It's hard to see the Hassan shooting as anything but a
      horrible accident of war. Nevertheless, the story offers some
      insight into why Iraq remains one of the most dangerous places on
      earth two years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, and why the United
      States has had such difficulty winning Iraqi hearts and minds.

      The whole incident took barely 15 seconds. Night was falling on Jan.
      18, and Apache's men had almost finished their day in Tall Afar, a
      rundown city of 200,000 near the Syrian border. Insurgents
      practically own the town after dark. Even in the daytime, U.S.
      soldiers routinely travel in convoys of at least three Strykers.
      That evening, Apache's armored vehicles had pulled over near the
      town's main traffic circle while the men patrolled on foot. As they
      stood by the road, a set of headlights swung into the boulevard and
      accelerated in their direction. "We have a car coming!" shouted one
      of the men. Away from their Strykers and on foot, they were perfect
      targets for a suicide bomber. They gestured frantically at the
      driver to stop. He didn't. Someone else yelled, "Stop that car!"

      Hussein Hassan was hurrying to get home. His wife, Kamila, sat
      beside him in the family Opel; their five youngest children, 2 to
      14, were squeezed in the back seat with a 6-year-old cousin. They
      had been at his brother's house, but now curfew was 15 minutes away,
      and Tall Afar's streets are no place for a family after dark.
      Hussein turned off Tall Afar's main traffic circle onto Mansour
      Boulevard. Rakan was first to spot the soldiers in the deepening
      dusk. They were waving their arms and raising their assault rifles.
      The boy jumped up in the back seat. Before he could open his mouth
      to warn his father, a storm of gunfire struck the car, killing both
      parents and covering the children with their blood.

      The silence was broken by the sound of children wailing .

      The Opel rolled to a stop, its engine blown out, headlights somehow
      still shining. The silence was broken by the sound of children
      wailing. One soldier moved warily to the car and pointed a light
      inside. What the beam showed was anything but
      insurgents. "Civilians!" a squad leader shouted. The soldiers ran to
      the car.

      Jilan scrambled out of the back seat with her hands up. "No,
      mister!" she yelled. "No, mister!" Most Iraqi children have learned
      at least a little English. Rakan tried to follow her, but he fell to
      the pavement. His legs wouldn't work. Their sisters Rana, 6, and
      Samar, 7, were screaming, their hair full of blood and smashed
      glass. Baby brother Muhammad and cousin Rajhda made scarcely a sound.

      A man in an American uniform approached. His face was wrapped in
      khaki cloth. Apache Company's interpreters try to hide their
      identities, to keep insurgents from targeting their families. The
      masked man said something in Arabic, but the children, ethnic
      Turkomans, didn't understand. The Americans offered water and
      pistachios to the kids. "We threw them in [the soldiers'] faces,"
      recalls Samar. "We wouldn't talk to them." Medics dressed a bloody
      gash in Rakan's back. In the darkness, they couldn't see that it was
      an exit wound. Bullet fragments had entered Rakan's abdomen just
      above the bladder and blasted out through his spine, damaging his
      three lowest vertebrae. One of the soldiers carried him in his arms
      as they rode to Tall Afar's General Hospital. The rest of the kids
      were driven home by a relative, an ambulance driver. Muhammad, not
      yet weaned, cried all night for his mother.

      The soldiers headed back to base. Partway there, they pulled over
      for a huddle. "This is bad," said the unit's commander, Capt. Thomas
      Seibold. "But I will protect you. There's going to be an
      investigation. The only thing we can do is to be honest. We did
      nothing wrong." He asked who had fired. Six men spoke up. He asked
      who had shot first, and he got no response. A couple of men said
      they fired the second shot. They climbed back into their Strykers
      and drove on.

      Back on base, the men filled out sworn statements. Apache's officers
      and NCOs hurried to reassure them. "Put yourself there," says Maj.
      Dylan Moxness. "You're an 18-year-old kid from Tennessee. You don't
      even understand why these people don't speak English anyway, you're
      shouting 'Stop!' and the car's still coming at you—you've got to
      fire."

      It's an admission that suffering has occurred

      The next morning, Maj. Brian Grady set out for the Hassans' home,
      escorted by a dozen soldiers. As the 2-14 Cavalry's civil-affairs
      officer, he makes cash grants to build schools and clinics in Tall
      Afar. (The funding is disguised as money from the Iraqi government
      so insurgents won't target the projects.) But most of his budget is
      devoted to compensation offered, with few questions, for civilian
      deaths, injuries, property damage or false imprisonment. "It's not
      an admission of guilt," says Grady. "It's an admission that
      suffering has occurred, and it's an expression of sympathy." The
      standard sum for a noncombatant's death—and the maximum for a motor
      vehicle—is $2,500. Claimants can still file for the full amount of
      material damages to property, like houses and cars, but solid proof
      is required, and processing can be slow.

      Grady paid $7,500 to a family elder named Abdul Yusuf, who promised
      to take responsibility for the orphans. But the children ended up
      with their eldest sister, Intisar, 24, and her husband, Haj Natheer
      Basheer, 50, in a tiny, rundown house in Mosul. Haj Natheer says he
      visited the base in early March with Jilan and Samar. He says
      Captain Seibold broke into tears talking to the children. Natheer
      thought it was a charade, and launched into a diatribe against the
      occupation. The translator finally warned the Iraqi to be quiet or
      risk getting locked up. "They are only tolerating you because the
      kids are here," the translator said. Natheer hasn't seen the
      Americans since. Captain Seibold declines to comment on the incident.

      Most of Apache's men were on patrol again the day after the
      shooting. "The mentality of the cavalry is, 'Put it in a box and go
      back to battle'," says Capt. John Montalto, 34, a psychologist from
      Manhattan's Upper East Side. "The repercussions happen later." The
      Reserves called Montalto up last June to treat combat stress-cases
      in Tall Afar. He says the 2-14's commanding officer, Lt. Col. Mark
      Davis, has spoken to him just once, with a warning: "Don't ruin my
      combat power." None of Apache's members went to him after the
      shooting.

      The men can only shake their heads over the incident. "The car
      seemed to be speeding up," says one. "Ask them why they were coming
      on so fast. They should have stopped." The unit's chaplain, Capt. Ed
      Willis, says there's no reason to feel guilty: "If you kill someone
      on the battlefield, whether it's another soldier or collateral
      damage, that doesn't fit under 'Thou shalt not kill'." "You don't
      want [your men] second-guessing their actions," says Moxness. "You
      want them to keep themselves alive." The sleepless nights can wait
      until the men get home safe. For whatever peace of mind it may offer
      anyone, a Seattle businessman and evangelical Christian named
      Malcolm Mead has set up a Web site in the name of relief for the
      Hassan family. If the money reaches the right hands, Rakan might
      someday walk again.

      With bureau reports

      © 2005 Newsweek, Inc.

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