Soldiers of the U.S. Army's Tomahawk Battalion had found witnesses to a mass kidnapping and killing that probably involved Iraqi police officers, but to get Iraqis to talk they would need a guide. They turned to a man who, until two years ago, had been running a pizza franchise in Canada.
When he saw an ad in a Detroit newspaper seeking interpreters for the U.S. military, the tall, bearded Iraqi native gave up his business, left his wife and three children in Canada and returned to a country he hadn't seen since 1989.
Now he wears a combat jersey with the name "Nash" emblazoned on the pocket. It is a pseudonym, but in Iraq he answers to nothing else.
Nash's mother, brother and sister live in Baghdad, where he was born. But in the 22 months he has worked with the U.S. military, he has not dared visit them, making do with phone calls. A visit could be his mother's death sentence. For the same security reasons, he guards his identity.
"It is hard but safer that way," Nash said.
In the unpredictable and often volatile encounters between U.S. soldiers and Iraqis, Nash faces daily danger from snipers, roadside bombs and firefights. He is a particular target as an Iraqi who collaborates with the U.S. occupiers.
Often his perfectly inflected Arabic and intimate knowledge of Iraqi domestic rituals make the difference between a blundering intrusion and a successful outing. Those skills have made Nash a valuable aide to the battalion and, in particular, to its commanding officer, Lt. Col. John Norris, a 43-year-old native of Louisville, Ky., and a father of two.
Norris' soldiers had located two witnesses to the slayings of six Sunni Arab Muslim men, but neither had agreed to testify. So the Americans were stepping up their effort to get the witnesses to come forward — bringing in Nash and Norris.
The first witness was a woman, Aisha, who had said her husband would not let her testify. Norris and Nash approached the husband — slender, in his 30s, wearing a mauve sweatsuit with the word "Puppy" printed on it.
"Is this your house?" Norris asked, speaking through Nash. The man nodded.
"Is your wife here today?" Norris asked. "Is it possible that I could talk to her without putting you all in danger?"
The man squirmed and said he would prefer that he didn't, but Norris, with Nash's help, persisted. After a minute or two, the man opened the gate leading to a tiny courtyard, where a living room couch sat on the front porch. He gestured for Norris to sit. Several other soldiers, including Julia Thompson, a private from Whittier, stood nearby.
Aisha came out of the house, two girls clutching her simple white robe. The girls smiled at the soldiers and waved their fingers. Aisha stood stiffly, looking at Norris intently but with confusion in her eyes.
In a pocket on the sleeve of his combat uniform, Norris had identification photos of each of the senior officers of the Iraqi national police unit that had been patrolling the neighborhood. It's a largely Shiite Muslim force. Norris suspected some of the officers of involvement in the slayings. He handed Aisha the pictures.
She turned the pages, studying each face.
The woman put a thumb on an officer's gold embroidery. "The uniforms looked like this, but it wasn't these people," she said.
"I was wondering, would you be willing to provide a testimony, an eyewitness account for us?" Norris asked.
The man answered for his wife: He did not want her to testify. "She didn't really notice everything," he said.
"We can protect you and protect your family, and we can also provide a reward if we can convict these individuals and send them to prison so we can stop all this," Norris said.
Nash relayed the American's offer, then the Iraqi's reply:
"She cannot testify," he said. "Our culture won't allow it."
"If Iraq is to improve," Norris said, with growing impatience, "we need Iraqi citizens to stand up and say 'no' to more crime."
"If she testifies, we will be the target of both sides," the husband answered.
"Your identity will be protected," Norris said. "What if they come back and take your daughters?"
Aisha edged closer to Norris, looking him in the eyes. But she didn't speak.
"I'm really sorry," the husband said. "Even if they take my own kids or my relatives, I will not tell."
In disgust, Norris rose and pointed at the man's chest.
"I put my life and the lives of my soldiers on the line to protect your family, and you're not willing to make any sacrifice to help your neighborhood," he said, striding out of the courtyard.
Nash did not translate.
On the street, Norris erupted. "He's a dirt bag," he said. "He's a coward."
Norris was deeply frustrated that he had apparently lost a promising witness. But something had happened outside his notice. As Norris had spoken to the husband, Aisha had passed a note to Thompson, the platoon's informal liaison to Iraqi women. The note said she would testify.
At the next stop, they met a man named Ali, one of the kidnapping victims who had been released because he is a Shiite. Ali described his abduction and beating. Norris offered medical treatment of his injuries at the American hospital in the heavily fortified Green Zone if he would testify.
During the conversation, a tall man in a well-cut dishdasha robe entered the room, took a seat and listened.
The tall man said Ali was in danger. Could Norris get him out of the country, he asked.
"I can't help him get out of Iraq," Norris said. "I can assist him with medical care."
"He's sick of jeopardizing his whole family by talking to the Americans," the tall man said, speaking through Nash.
Ali scowled at the man. He said he could make up his own mind.
At that, Nash struggled up from his crouched position and stood in the center of the room, helmet in hand, his shaven head towering above the others. Sensing that the tall man was a neighbor with some influence, but not a relative, Nash turned his back to exclude the visitor from the conversation and faced Norris and Ali.
"Would it be acceptable if I left with him like he was a detainee, handcuffed and blindfolded?" Norris asked.
"The people would say he is a bad guy," the tall man said to Nash's back.
As his last resort, Norris proposed a rendezvous.
"In the next day or so, if you can put Ali in a taxi, you can call me," he said.
The answer was equivocal. Nash was discouraged as they left. But he had gotten Ali's cellphone number.
A woman's note promising to testify. A man's telephone number. These were small steps, but in Iraq they were something to hold onto.
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.