THE U.S. soldier looked around a crowded Iraqi home and watched as an old man in a green dishdasha robe scooted across to an interpreter and whispered in his ear.
"The guy says if you don't take action, they're going" to do it themselves, the interpreter told Capt. Rob Murdough. The threat of vigilante revenge caused Murdough's face to flush.
"That's not justice," he said sharply, and turned to a young man sitting on a couch with half a dozen elders.
Murdough normally led a mortar platoon, but in a city awash in killings he had become a detective trying to solve a mass kidnapping and slaying that may have been ordered by Iraqi police officials. After two frustrating days, Murdough thought he was finally near a break in the case: The young man he had come to see might be able to lead him to a suspect.
At least 22 Iraqi men had been kidnapped from a meatpacking plant, and six who were Sunni Arab Muslims had been shot dead. Investigators were trying to find an inside man — a Shiite Muslim employee at the plant — who they thought had helped the killers.
The employee, named Hussein, was believed to have contacts with the Al Mahdi army, the Shiite militia loyal to radical cleric Muqtada Sadr.
If Murdough could get the young man to lead him to Hussein's house, the Army would arrest the suspect. But the young man had good reason to be leery. There was a sniper in Hussein's neighborhood, which was filled with Al Mahdi militiamen, he said. When a stranger walks in, they call each other by cellphone, he told the American soldier.
Murdough urged the young man to ride in a U.S. armored vehicle, promising he would remain hidden. After a time, he agreed and drew a crude map to Hussein's street, warning that the Al Mahdi army members there didn't want "anything to do with American soldiers."
Inside, the young man crouched on one of the vehicle's low benches, next to the interpreter and a soldier. His eyes grew wide as he examined the jumble around him: high-tech communications gear, weapons, an ice chest, a garbage bag. As the vehicle moved down the street, a soldier gave him a helmet and combat shirt and an olive blindfold. He tied it over his nose like a movie outlaw. Only his eyes showed.
The armored vehicle made a few turns and stopped. The soldiers got out and moved down a street of low walls and iron gates, taking a few minutes to chat with each man they encountered, just as they would on a routine patrol.
"Hi, we're here to help," Murdough said time and again. "Do you have any information about bad guys?"
Murdough noticed several men and boys gathered at one of the houses. He told Pfc. Julia Thompson, the team's only woman, to quietly take a photo. Thompson then took the camera back to the armored vehicle. The young man inside studied the image on the camera screen. One of the men was Hussein's father, he said, another his brother.
Murdough and his men moved on, casually stopping at several houses and sidewalk shops. Then they strolled back to the group. "Could we take a picture of your family?" he asked.
The men looked surprised, but agreed. While they posed, Murdough asked casually about the family. One of the men introduced two sons and said a third was at work. "What's his name?" Murdough asked.
"Hussein," the man said.
Murdough had located the suspect's home. Now he hoped that he had concealed his purpose enough to avoid scaring Hussein off. In a few days, he would return and try to make an arrest.
By now, Murdough and his commanding officer, Lt. Col. John Norris, were making progress in the investigation. They had evidence that pointed to police involvement in the slayings: In the empty lot where six of the kidnapping victims had been found shot to death, U.S. soldiers discovered shell casings that bore the characteristic square indentation made by a Glock handgun, a sidearm rare in Iraq except among the American-armed security forces.
Norris already had ordered one Iraqi police unit off the streets and back to its barracks for retraining. But he knew the unit would one day return to patrol, and he was concerned about its leadership.
On the fourth day after the kidnappings, Norris went to police headquarters to have what he thought would be a "face to face" with the Iraqi battalion's new commander.
Instead, after Norris cooled his heels in a dreary reception room, a large Iraqi man in a brown suit strode in followed by a videographer and a photographer. The man sat regally in the commander's chair and announced himself as Brig. Gen. Najim. Norris was surprised. Najim had been in command of three Iraqi police battalions, but Norris thought he had been dismissed.
Najim spoke to the American in a strident voice, keeping his eyes focused on the camera. Speaking through Norris' interpreter, the general insisted that Iraqi media had made up the story of police involvement in the kidnappings. The Iraqi police had conducted their own investigation, he declared.
"Everyone knows now we had nothing to do with that."
Norris disagreed. "They were Iraqi national police in Iraqi national police vehicles who conducted the kidnapping," he said.
"Only one vehicle," the general said.
"They carried Motorolas" — the type of portable radio used by Iraqi police — Norris said. "It was an organized Iraqi national police force."
Growing agitated, Norris recounted a killing he had witnessed the day before the kidnappings about 200 yards from an Iraqi national police checkpoint.
"An Iraqi citizen was murdered on this street in cold blood," he said. "A vehicle stopped. Two individuals stepped out, shot him in the head several times. They got in the car and drove away."
Norris grabbed three soda cans to illustrate what he had seen.
"Iraqi national police headquarters," he declared, plunking down the first can on a coffee table. "Iraqi national police checkpoint," he said, putting the second down nearby. "Local national murdered in cold blood," he said, banging the third can on the table in front of the second.
"I have an Iraqi national police vehicle drive by while I'm standing there. I personally ask him to help. He said, 'It's not my job,' " Norris said. "Does this sound like the performance we want of the Iraqi national police? Is this somebody deserving of the respect of the Iraqi people?"
Najim seemed unimpressed. "What kind of vehicle was it?" he asked, sidestepping Norris' question.
As if on cue, an Iraqi officer entered the room, interrupting to announce that the battalion had been assembled.
"Do you want to see my men?" the general asked.
About 200 men came sloppily to attention as Najim and his American visitors walked out to the drill yard behind the building. "At ease," Najim said, displaying his authority. The men squatted on the concrete.
"Don't pay attention to the media," he said, as Norris looked on, astonished at the Iraqi's audacity. "They always say the wrong thing. Keep up the good work. You are all patriots."
As he moved to leave, police officers approached and kissed his cheek.
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 meatpacking plant in southwest 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