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Witnesses take a ride downtown

For soldiers inside a Stryker armored vehicle, a 25-ton, eight-wheeled fortified box, every trip is about the same. The vehicle bounces and rolls, makes noises and gets hot. Time passes slowly. The world outside ceases to exist but for a black-and-white video feed on a 12-inch screen behind the driver's compartment.

In the shadowy image, even dirty and congested Baghdad can almost look attractive.

On this trip, a Stryker platoon of the U.S. Army's Tomahawk Battalion was headed for a rendezvous with a witness to a mass kidnapping and killing. A road lined with low houses passed by, then a freeway overpass and a row of palm trees. Finally a concrete barricade appeared on the video monitor — a checkpoint. After several more turns, the vehicle stopped at a fruit stand where the witness, a man named Ali, stood near his uncle.

Ali hopped on one foot up the tailgate ramp and sat on a low bench, wincing when a soldier brushed his leg. Days before, Ali had been badly beaten by men dressed in police uniforms who had invaded the meatpacking plant where he worked and kidnapped at least 22 workers. Despite his injuries, Ali was one of the lucky ones. Because he was a Shiite Muslim, the kidnappers let him go with a beating. At least six other men, all Sunni Arab Muslims, were killed.

Ali had seen the faces of each of the kidnappers, and Lt. Col. John Norris, commander of the Tomahawk Battalion, had promised him medical care at the U.S. hospital in the Green Zone, the heavily fortified government center in Baghdad, if he would testify.

The young man had hesitated. His family feared reprisals. But Ali's best friend was one of the slain Sunnis — the son of the owner of the meat plant. Ali decided to trust the Americans.

On the drive to the hospital, Norris praised Ali as a courageous young man who was doing right by his community and his country. Norris' interpreter, a man who uses the name Nash, said Ali wanted to look through the commander's sunglasses. Many Iraqis think the U.S. military glasses let soldiers see through people's clothes, Nash said.

Norris handed the glasses over.

"No X-ray," he said. "But they do protect my eyes from shrapnel. Believe it or not, there are people out there who want to kill me."

Ali laughed. He looked relieved as he handed the glasses back.

It was evident that Ali was recovering from his injuries. But Norris had made a promise to give him American medical care. It was important to follow through. The vehicle headed for the hospital.

Norris, Ali and a few soldiers disappeared inside the hospital while the rest of the unit sat outside, chatting about the things they cared about — cars, weapons, home. A soldier quizzed the others about what gift to buy for his wife's birthday; others talked about their odd experiences in Iraq.

More than four hours passed before Norris and Ali came out. The commander led the Iraqi to a convoy of gray SUVs parked across the street. That afternoon, Ali gave his statement to an Iraqi investigator.

"We had a little victory today," Norris told his men.

Epilogue:

In the days since Ali testified, the investigation of the kidnapping at the Baghdad meatpacking plant has continued. The second witness Norris had sought out, a woman named Aisha who lived near the plant, also testified. The woman's husband had tried to prevent her from giving evidence, but she waited for a day when he was not at home. She walked across the street from her house to tell a U.S. soldier that she was ready to talk.

Aisha was taken to the Green Zone, where she examined a set of photographs and identified a high-ranking Iraqi police officer as one of the kidnappers. Because only one person has identified him, the official has not been charged.

One of Norris' platoon leaders, Capt. Rob Murdough, located a third witness, the brother of a business owner near the meatpacking plant. The day the witness went to the Green Zone to give a statement, U.S. and Iraqi forces received a tip that he had weapons hidden in his home. A subsequent raid found no weapons, and Murdough learned that the tip had come from an Interior Ministry official.

The witness gave investigators a detail that might prove critical: An Iraqi national police truck used in the kidnapping had the number 13 stenciled on its side. In late October, seven Iraqi national police officers were arrested in a separate slaying case. The pickup they were driving had the number 13 stenciled on its side. The two cases have not been formally linked, and high-level Iraqi officials believed responsible for the officers' actions have not been prosecuted.

Murdough succeeded in arresting a man named Hussein who had worked at the meat plant. Investigators think he was the "inside man" who helped the kidnappers. He is being questioned by Iraqi authorities.

A couple of weeks after the kidnappings and slayings, Sunni men attacked an Iraqi national police patrol entering their Baghdad neighborhood, killing one officer.

The next day, Norris convened a meeting with the four top Iraqi police commanders and Sunni sheiks in the area.

The sheiks balked at attending, but after being berated by Norris they agreed to sit down with the police officials. A national police commander agreed not to send patrols into Sunni neighborhoods unless accompanied by Americans. The Sunnis parted with handshakes, promising to try to prevent violence.

After serving a four-month extension on its one-year tour of duty, the Tomahawk Battalion will return to its base in Alaska in December. Murdough said he didn't know whether the meat-plant case would be solved by then. But even if it wasn't, he didn't think the work would be in vain.

"I guarantee you, the people who did this have done a dozen other kidnappings and executions," Murdough said. "If we don't get them on this one, there will be a mountain of evidence when they get arrested on something else."


doug.smith@latimes.com*

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
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