A Clan Scourged by Death

Times Staff Writers

It seems these violent days need more prayers than hours can hold, but the old man prays anyway, raising his hands and closing his eyes, whispering verse as the tribal boys watch from the dusty courtyard.

They know what Mohammed Mousa Tahir prays about. They have heard the low moan of his voice, like wind through a field. Tahir says U.S. troops shot his son in a car on an overpass. He buried the boy, and then, a few days later, word came through the littered streets of his neighborhood: Six nephews and cousins had been slain and mutilated and left alongside a road by unknown attackers.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. June 22, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 22, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 83 words Type of Material: Correction
Iraqi family -- A photo caption that ran in some copies of Monday’s Section A with an article about an Iraqi clan that lost family members to the ongoing violence showed six members of the clan and said they had been killed on their way to bury a relative, Haithem Tahir. The relative whose remains they were escorting was Jabber Tahir. As the accompanying story said, Jabber Tahir died of natural causes, unlike Haithem Tahir, who was shot dead on a Baghdad highway.

“The Americans killed my son, but if they come to my house, I will tell them: ‘Peace be upon you,’ ” said Tahir, a Shiite tribal elder, basing his account on unconfirmed reports. “I only want the Americans to help my society and stop this war. I must be patient. I don’t know exactly what happened to my son. I just know I waited for him to return home, but he did not come.”


Bloodshed in Iraq is both calculated and indiscriminate. The unluckiest are caught in explosions and insurgent ambushes. Others, like Tahir’s cousins and nephews, are killed over religious and tribal loyalties. And then there are the ones like his son, Haithem, a 25-year-old Baghdad University student heading east on a highway toward a military convoy in a jittery city, the kind of place where the hands of suicide bombers are found duct-taped to steering wheels.

In the space of six days in May, the Tahir family became another casualty of the violence that has killed more than 1,000 Iraqis in recent weeks. The country has fallen into a grisly rhythm where a trip to the market or the mosque can end in a burst of fire.

The Tahirs belong to the Bu Mohammed tribe and live in the slum of Sadr City in northeast Baghdad. Tahir’s brother, Sheik Faisel Khareem, is the neighborhood’s tribal leader. A middle-aged man with a gray-black beard and silver-rimmed glasses, he mediates disputes between families and has more than once been called into negotiations with American forces.

U.S. troops don’t like to linger here; Sadr City can be a labyrinth of murmured prayers and meanness. May 3 was like most days: horse-drawn wagons clattered past, trash whirled, sheep fought the butcher’s knife and boys with bent saws and wet feet sold block ice on the corners. Haithem Tahir, an Arabic language major, was in a friend’s Mercedes heading toward an overpass on Mohammed al Qasim highway, a dirty ribbon slicing through Baghdad.

Haithem and the driver, Wisam Abdul-Jalil Sadoon, a 27-year-old father of four, were on a midday shopping trip to buy Haithem clothes for his upcoming wedding, family members said. Shortly before 3 p.m. the car skimmed past the Bab al Sheik police station about two miles from the young men’s neighborhood. Tahir, informed by bystanders at the scene, told police the car had slowed or stopped near an on-ramp when an American convoy opened fire.

The Army’s 3rd Infantry Division, which patrols Baghdad, said it had no report of the shooting. The highway is also frequented by well-armed SUVs driven by loosely regulated private security contractors.

Two men who claimed to have witnessed the incident said gunshots rang out from an American patrol that had passed Haithem’s car. The Mercedes swerved, went through a guardrail, plummeted 20 feet and landed on its roof below the overpass on a street of scrap dealers and mechanics’ shops. One witness was Abdul Amir, a welding supervisor.

“I was standing [about 200 feet] from the place where the car crashed,” Amir said. “I heard two bullets, and from the sound I recognized that they were coming from an American machine gun. I looked at the highway and I saw a white GMC Suburban with tinted windows and three Humvees. The soldier behind the machine gun shot two bullets and then a spray of five or six bullets.... The Americans did not stop.”

By early evening, Haithem had not come home and the family was worried. Tahir’s second son called Haithem’s cellphone. A doctor answered. He told the family to hurry. By the time they arrived, Haithem was dead. Tahir was handed a death certificate and an English exam that had been found in the car. Sadoon survived but still slides in and out of consciousness.

Dr. Qussai Hussein performed the autopsy on Haithem.

“There were three bullet wounds, two to the head each with an entrance of [three-fifths of an inch] and an exit of [four-fifths of an inch]. There was another wound to the left ankle with an entrance of [four-fifths of an inch] and an exit of [1.2 inches],” he said. “Unfortunately, no bullets were found and we cannot determine the source of the bullets.”

Days after Haithem’s body was washed and wrapped in cloth, death would again come to the Tahir family. A tribal member, Jabber Tahir, died of natural causes about 3 a.m. on May 9. Khareem, the clan leader, called for a coffin from the local mosque and summoned six of his young cousins and nephews and four family elders. The men lifted Jabber and tied the coffin to the roof of a minibus heading toward Najaf, the holy city where Shiites prefer to be buried.

The bus didn’t get far. It was stopped at a roadblock in Latifiya, on Baghdad’s southern rim.

“Dirty, armed men surrounded them,” Khareem said, basing his account on police reports, photographs and the elders who had survived the attack. “They opened the door and raised their weapons as if ready to fire. One of them took the driver’s ID card and put it in his pocket. The others stood near the bus, and two more waited in the distance with rocket-propelled grenades.”

The four elders were ordered to leave the bus. As they stood on the pavement, one of the assailants jumped into the driver’s seat and drove away with the six young men, followed by the other attackers. The elders hurried to an Iraqi police post. Radio calls went out and a search began. Three hours later, the body of Jabber and his battered coffin were found bobbing in a stream. Police handed the remains to the elders but said the young men had vanished.

The next morning, Khareem said, the elders, most of them the fathers of the missing men, returned to the police station. They were told to go to a nearby hospital, where overnight six men had been delivered to the morgue. The elders saw the bodies, studied the gashed and bruised faces, but were unsure whether they belonged to their sons and relatives.

“The faces looked familiar, but the bodies were dressed in camouflage fatigues worn by the Iraqi national guards,” Khareem said. “So the elders said, ‘These can’t be our sons.’ They went back to the police station, but the police told them to return to the hospital and double-check. You can understand they didn’t want to go back. They didn’t want to know. But they went, and they studied the faces again and inspected signs on the body, including a tattoo of the sword of Imam Ali, the cousin of the prophet Muhammad.

“Then they knew.”

Khareem paused. Boys and young tribal men had gathered in a room off the courtyard. They leaned on and draped over one another; they sat cross-legged in the heat. This was a story that would be told for generations, the kind of story a boy hears and is shaped by, the way copper is shaped when it’s hammered. The sheik nodded his head and gestured. Pictures taken in the morgue of the dead lying on metal gurneys appeared in his long hands.

The first was Saad Jabber, 31, a newlywed with a bullet hole to the head. The next was Adnan Jlood, 34, a cigarette seller with eight children and a sliced chest, as if tortured. There was Walid Khaioon, 31, a telephone worker with four daughters, a newborn son and a shattered skull. Adel Jabber, 32, was next, a deaf and mute tribal carpenter whose eyes had been gouged out and whose mouth had been carved away. Hassam Humadi, 26, a government employee with a fiancee, had a neck wound. There was no picture of Mohammed Chwiser, 30, a photographer, killed with the others.

None of the men were in the national guard, but their bodies were dressed in desert fatigues. The sheik suspects that the killers made it look as if they had ambushed a military unit to impress their leaders. Or maybe they were contract mercenaries paid more for killing a soldier, or maybe there was some other reason.

Iraq is a land of unfathomable reasons and dangerous maybes, but the sheik said he believes the killers were Sunni Muslims because they partially scraped the tattoo of the sword of Imam Ali off one victim’s arm. Ali’s sword is a revered symbol for Shiites.

In recent weeks, sectarian violence has intensified as the minority Sunnis, the beneficiaries of Saddam Hussein’s regime, are forced to accept a new government dominated by Shiites. The sheik said the streets brimmed with “hatred and rancor.” He has tried to calm his tribe. It is better to be methodical than rash. There are two laws in Iraq -- civil and tribal. If one fails, justice is sought through the other.

“We won’t retaliate just because we are Shiite and they are Sunni,” he said. “But we will act according to tribal custom. If we find out which tribe did this, they must come to us and tell us who the murderers are. Their tribe must pay compensation to us. The murderers must be arrested. If these things don’t happen, we will retaliate and we will kill four of theirs for every one of ours. This is the code.”

Khareem let the image linger, let it seep into the minds of the young boys sitting around him on the carpet. The call to prayer warbled through the courtyard. Tahir, the death certificate of his son snug in his pocket, removed his headdress and lifted his arms. Reciting verse, he seemed to gather light in his hands. Then he knelt, closed his eyes and pushed the world away. Minutes later, the sheik nodded. Some of the boys rushed out. A plastic cloth was thrown on the floor. Plates appeared. Then rice and chicken. The sheik, Tahir and the other men ate. The boys waited, and the pictures of the dead men were folded away.

The sheik had another story, a tale capturing the lyricism and brutality of this land. Bu Mohammed, a Sunni living in Baqubah, founded the sheik’s tribe more than 600 years ago. He had killed his brother and fled south to Amarah, where he converted to the Shiite sect. The Shiites tricked him, however, promising him a beautiful wife but giving him an ugly one on his wedding day. Outraged, he sought vengeance.

But his mother told him to accept fate, that there were more swords against him than with him.

One night, the new wife dreamed that seven bees flew from her womb. Bu Mohammed’s mother, a mystic, was pleased and decided that the bees represented the leaders of the clans that would one day make up the tribe.

The sheik likes this story, his voice resonating over syllables he lets expand and others he pulls tight. The boys smiled at the magic of such a beginning.


Times staff writer Caesar Ahmed contributed to this report.