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COLONEL'S TOUGHEST DUTY


San Francisco Chronicle

Battalion commander pays his respects, apologizes to Iraqis whose civilian relatives have been killed by anonymous GIs in passing patrols and convoys
- Anna Badkhen, Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, October 14, 2005

Tikrit, Iraq -- Nebras Khalid Nasser understood this much: Insurgents often killed people in Beiji, a northern Iraqi town where he lived with his pregnant wife and their year-old son. He needed to move his family to Tikrit, a safer city about 40 miles to the south. He helped his wife, Zahoya, into his brother-in-law's beat-up Toyota sedan. They started driving south. They saw a U.S. military convoy.

A shot rang out.

Blood poured from Zahoya's head. Then she died.

Standing on the blue concrete floor of his brother's compound Thursday, Nasser wiped his tears with the collar of his gray dishdasha shirt. A U.S. officer sat in front of him in a beige plastic chair, telling him he was sorry about his loss. Nasser nodded, barely comprehending what was happening. All he could repeat was, "She was pregnant. She died right away."

Lt. Col. Todd Wood, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, avoided looking at him.

Wood's battalion has lost eight soldiers since January, and he has had a hard enough time explaining the randomness and the suddenness of the death of his own soldiers. Now, he had to explain to this bereaved Iraqi man how his wife had died at the hands of a U.S. military convoy that was not even under Woods' command.

"This was a terrible accident -- it was not intentional," Wood, 42, said with an army interpreter by his side. "The soldier who did this did not intend to shoot and kill a woman. I wanted to apologize on behalf of those soldiers.

"I know that explanation doesn't make anything any easier."

"She was pregnant. She died right away," Nasser said again and again.

U.S. military officials do not keep track of Iraqi civilians who have died from U.S. fire. The Brookings Institution's Iraq Index said last month that 8,347 to 14,576 Iraqis had been killed by acts of war since 2003, but the estimates were not broken down by type of incident. Other groups attempting to track civilian deaths put the number even higher. Wood estimated that since his battalion was deployed here in January, U.S. soldiers had killed about 10 Iraqi civilians in this sector of north central Iraq.

Often the deaths are the result of split-second decisions made by U.S. soldiers who have to weigh the risk of being blown up by insurgents, who use car bombs as their weapon of choice, against the possibility of killing innocent civilians. Although U.S. troops in Iraq use their weapons far more carefully than they did at the beginning of the war, innocent civilians still get killed.

No matter the reason or the circumstance, every time U.S. soldiers kill an Iraqi civilian in his sector, Wood meets with the family of the deceased to pay his respects. On Thursday, he had to do it twice.

Both victims apparently were shot by U.S. soldiers from other units passing through Beiji, where insurgents mount regular attacks on Americans, Iraqi security forces and Iraq's oil pipeline. Neither convoy stopped to help the civilians the soldiers had shot. It would be pretty much impossible to ascertain which U.S. unit was passing through the area at the time and track down those who did the shooting, Wood said. "Seems like I pick up a lot of people's pieces around here," he said. "These ... patrols that drive around and shoot people have been a thorn in everybody's side all year."

Other members of the 2-7 battalion are equally concerned about the incidents.

"I hate the fact that American soldiers ride around killing civilians," said Command Sgt. Major Samuel Coston, 44, from North Carolina. "All you got to say is 'I feel threatened,' 'the car was driving aggressively,' and you shoot. They have no remorse. They just keep on driving."

Last week, according to local Iraqi police, a U.S. soldier shot Jamal Yassin Hussein, a fisherman and a father of five. Hussein, who lived in Tikrit, was on his way to meet with a friend who had been fishing upstream in the murky green waters of the Tigris River.

"He was observing the Ramadan fast, and he had packed some food so that he could break fast with his friend," Hussein's father-in-law, Maher Mara'e, told Wood. "He was always so careful, and that day, he left home early so that he would get to his friend on time.

"The next thing we knew, Iraqi police officers are bringing his dead body to the family and saying he was shot by coalition forces. I don't know why, for what reason, he was killed."

Wood, who met with Mara'e at an Iraqi army headquarters in Tikrit, told him:

"I know that there are no words to make pain and suffering any easier, but sometimes it helps to look a person in the eye and to hear an apology."

There was a moment of silence, as Mara'e and Wood looked at the floor.

"This was not my unit that did this," Wood finally said.

"I understand that," Mara'e nodded.

"But you live in the town where I live, and I'm responsible for you," Wood said. "I will be held accountable for this event."

Wood reached into his pocket and produced an envelope with $2,500 -- a compensation package the U.S. military gives to the families of innocent civilians its troops kill in Iraq.

"No matter how much money you give me, it's not going to give me my son back," Mara'e said. Then, he said "thank you" and took the money.

Capt. Ray Osorio, 31, from Orlando, who handles the colonel's relations with Iraqis, said he did not feel the $2,500 could compensate for the loss of a life.

"I always try to put myself in their shoes -- what if it was my sister who got killed, and someone is giving me money?" Osorio said. "You can't solve it by paying. We just want to make things right."

When the 2-7 battalion's soldiers are responsible for the killing of a civilian, the commanders investigate the killing, the way they have been doing since June, when a soldier mistakenly shot and killed an Iraqi fire engine driver who had arrived at the site of a suicide car bombing. But when the civilians are killed by other units driving through the 2-7's territory, Wood only finds out about their deaths from their families or local residents or not at all.

In Jamal Hussein's case, the mayor of Tikrit told Wood about the killing and arranged a meeting for the colonel to pay condolences to Mara'e.

Wood found out about the killing of Zahoya Nasser two days ago when a woman in a black abaya covering approached him as he was inspecting polling sites ahead of the Saturday referendum on the new Iraqi constitution in Khansa Square in downtown Tikrit. She was Zahoya's sister-in-law, Intisar Abdallah Abid, and she had been in the car when Zahoya was shot.

Abid said they were traveling south behind two other Iraqi civilian cars. When the cars approached a procession of U.S. military trucks, the first two cars sped up and cut in front of the convoy.

"One round missed the second car and hit our car," said Abid. "It hit my sister-in-law in the head. She didn't make it to the hospital. The convoy kept going."

Wood promised Abid that he would visit the family the next morning. Now, he sat in the beige plastic chair in front of grief-stricken Nasser. He stared down at his combat boots and at the concrete floor sticky with spilled soda as Nasser cried, searching for words that would make the bewildered man feel better and finding none. He handed over the $2,500.

When Abid turned to leave, Wood stood for a while, stooping in the hot October sun.

"I hate that," he said quietly.

"Probably ricocheted off the ground, sir," his translator, Omar Elmenshawi, offered, as a possible explanation for how a U.S. soldier's bullet had killed an Iraqi man's beloved wife.

"Yeah, probably," Wood said vaguely. Then, after a pause, he repeated: "I hate this," climbed into his armored humvee and drove off.

E-mail Anna Badkhen at abadkhen@sfchronicle.com

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Thou shall not steal the election; Thou shall not lie about the weapons; Thou shall not kill the innocent; For I am The Lord, and you make me sick!

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