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Few clues and reluctant witnesses

CAPT. ROB MURDOUGH sweated under body armor in the 90-degree heat as he stepped into a small factory through swarms of flies and an intolerable stink of rotting meat.

A stocky 25-year-old West Point graduate from Keene, N.H., Murdough normally commanded a mortar platoon in a battalion whose motto is "Unleash hell." But in Baghdad, Iraqis already had done that. Murdough was here to investigate murder.

Baghdad is a city of countless unsolved killings, but this one had U.S. commanders particularly worried.

Uniformed, armed men had driven to a meat-packing plant in police vehicles, told the workers they were conducting a routine identity check, then handcuffed at least 22 men and shoved them into the factory's refrigerated trucks. Six of the workers, all Sunni Arab Muslims, were later found shot to death in a trash-strewn lot. Many of the others had disappeared.

Sunni residents of the neighborhood suspected that officers of the Iraqi national police, a mostly Shiite Muslim force, were to blame. American officials thought so too. They feared that Sunni anger could trigger more killings in an area they were trying hard to control. The generals wanted to find the criminals and make an example of the case.

In mid-October, they turned to the Tomahawk Battalion of the 172nd Stryker Brigade to investigate.

But the factory yielded no clues. So Murdough and his soldiers started working the streets, talking to merchants, shopkeepers and residents, hoping to find a witness. They questioned old men sitting in front of their stores in white dishdasha robes and merchants in their shops. Most said they knew nothing.

Nearby, Julia Thompson, a 21-year-old private from Whittier, found herself surrounded by a flock of children shouting "Leila," the Arabic equivalent of her name. As a combat infantry unit, the Tomahawk Battalion is a male domain. But in Iraq, the Army places a woman with most platoons. Thompson serves as a counterintelligence agent, talking to people, listening for useful information.

The sight of a woman in uniform doing a soldier's job sometimes draws scornful glances from Iraqi adults, but Baghdad's children find it irresistible. Everywhere Thompson goes, children crowd around her, and some have stories to tell. This time, a child told Thompson he could lead her to one of the kidnapping victims — a man who had been freed.

His name was Ali, and he lived down a small street barricaded by palm trunks laid on their sides, behind a freshly painted iron gate at the kind of middle-class house that dots Baghdad's slums.

The Americans walked across a walled courtyard into a front room furnished with a collection of rugs and a large hutch. Ali, a handsome young man with an inquisitive face, lay on a mattress against a wall. Dark scabs left by plastic handcuffs circled his wrists. He winced when he moved his foot.

Ali told the Americans that five men had come into the factory, four in uniforms of the Iraqi national police and one in civilian clothes who gave orders. In the refrigerated trucks, he said, the air grew thick. One of the victims collapsed and died. Another was shot in the hand when he tried to pry his way out.

They drove to a house where the kidnappers beat each of the workers with a rifle butt, Ali said. Then the gunmen separated Sunnis from Shiites. They scolded Ali, a Shiite, for working in a Sunni establishment. But they let him go.

Ali freely recounted the details of the kidnapping. But to provide evidence, he would have to go to the Green Zone to speak to an investigator. His family feared retaliation. It was too dangerous.

The Americans moved on and continued to troll for witnesses. Back on the streets, Thompson noticed a slender woman peering through her curtains as if she wanted to cross the social divide that keeps most Iraqi women isolated in their homes. After a time, the woman made her way out of her house. She said she had seen everything and could identify the kidnappers from photos.

The woman warned Thompson, however, that her husband would not approve of her talking to authorities. He lived on the second floor of the house with a new woman, but he still treated her as his wife, she explained. She would need his permission.

The platoon had one more lead to follow that day. A youth led them to the house of the Sunni man who owned the meat plant.

The man's wife said he wasn't home. "You must find my son," she pleaded. She did not yet know that the young man had been killed. Murdough didn't know how to break the news.

The day had been a frustrating one. Trying to solve a crime in a foreign land at war, the Americans had run up against social divisions and deeply held fears. The victims, their relatives and their neighbors had never known a working justice system. They were trying to stay alive in a city where dozens were killed each day.

To get further, the Americans would need help.

First of four parts. Next: The interpreter.

*

About this series

Times staff writer Doug Smith spent seven days in October on patrols in Baghdad with two platoons of the 4th (Tomahawk) Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team. The platoons were investigating the kidnapping of at least 22 Iraqi men from a meat-packing plant in southwestern Baghdad.

The incidents reported were either observed directly by Smith or reconstructed from interviews with those involved. Three Iraqi witnesses to the kidnappings have been identified with fictitious names for their protection. All other names are real.

For additional material, including audio interviews with some battalion members, go to latimes.com/iraq.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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    Times staff writer Doug Smith spent seven days in October on patrols in Baghdad with two platoons of the 4th (Tomahawk) Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team. The platoons were investigating the kidnapping of at least 22 Iraqi men from a meat-packing plant in...

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