He was the first to enter the charred farmhouse where the bodies of his relatives lay strewn about the floor, shot and bludgeoned to death.
And he watched more than three months later as a U.S. Army officer took the two surviving children in his arms, barely able to hold back tears as he told them that the people who had killed their family would be punished.
“Never in my mind could I have imagined such a gruesome sight,” Abu Firas Janabi said of the day in March when his cousin, Fakhriya Taha Muhsen; her husband, Kasim Hamza Rasheed; and their two daughters were slain and their farmhouse set ablaze.
“Kasim’s corpse was in the corner of the room, and his head was smashed into pieces,” he said. The 5-year-old daughter, Hadel, was beside her father, and Janabi said he could see that Fakhriya’s arms had been broken.
In another room, he found 15-year-old Abeer, naked and burned, with her head smashed in “by a concrete block or a piece of iron.”
“There were burns from the bottom of her stomach to the end of her body, except for her feet,” he said.
“I did not believe what I was seeing. I tried to fool myself into believing I was in a dream. But the problem was that we were not dreaming. We put a piece of cloth over her body. Then I left the house together with my wife.”
At least four American soldiers from a nearby checkpoint are the prime suspects. The case, which includes the alleged rape of the older daughter, has caused a firestorm in the United States and Iraq. And the soldiers, including one charged Monday with rape and murder, have become lurid symbols of the American military at its worst.
The image has not been helped in recent weeks by the emergence of other accusations that U.S. soldiers had killed Iraqi civilians.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki complained Wednesday that immunity from Iraqi prosecution had encouraged atrocities by American troops. And the U.S. military is clearly on the defensive. On Wednesday, Army Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, the chief military spokesman in Iraq, defended the troops here, complaining that the “acts of a few outweigh the deeds of many.”
Janabi, who has emerged as a potential witness, has been interviewed by a U.S. investigator.
He lives about half a mile from the scene of the killings, just outside the town of Mahmoudiya. It’s agricultural country, where the small farms are divided by mesh wire fences and the people who toil on them make a subsistence living.
Janabi and his wife were home March 12 when a neighbor ran to tell him that the farmhouse of his cousin and her husband was on fire and that he could see slain family members inside the burning building.
Janabi said that when he arrived at the house, he began to call for others to help him.
“But nobody came,” he said in a telephone interview Tuesday from Mahmoudiya, describing the eeriness he felt as he and his wife stood there. “I felt that I had made a disastrous decision. I felt I had made a mistake to rush so quickly to the house, because if the murderers were still there, they would kill me as well.”
He and his wife had to douse some of the flames before they could enter the home.
The couple had found the two young boys in the family crying as they stood outside the farmhouse, where they could see the bodies inside. The boys had been at school when the killings occurred but were home by the time Janabi and his wife arrived.
Together, they went to a checkpoint guarded by Iraqi soldiers to tell them what had happened. Then they went back to the house and watched as the bodies were placed in nylon bags and taken to a nearby Iraqi base.
Janabi said Abeer was not in school and, like other peasant girls, seldom left the house. But he said that three days before the killings, the Rasheed family was at his house and his cousin was complaining that the American soldiers at the nearby guard post were constantly searching her house. Janabi said the parents believed that the “girl was the target.”
“I suggested they come and live in the house beside mine that was empty,” Janabi said. “But they said, ‘There are a lot of families close to us, and nothing bad will happen.’ ”
Janabi said he returned to the burned-out house the day after the attack as villagers gathered to scavenge for furniture. He asked the villagers whether they knew of any enemies that Kasim had made. They answered no, saying he was just a poor farmer like them who barely made ends meet, working in a Baghdad factory to earn an extra $3 a day. But the villagers had heard stories about the slayings.
In one story, the killers wore black shirts and military pants. In another, they were wearing track suits, and in a third, there was a dog with them.
Janabi said he suspected the Americans because the dozens of shots fired would have been heard by U.S. troops at the nearby checkpoint. And from what he could gather, the killers were at the house for more than two hours, too long for them to have gone unnoticed by the Americans. He also said he suspected that whoever carried out the killings had used Kasim’s AK-47 assault rifle, the only item that Janabi said was missing from the house.
Initially, U.S. military officials said the killings were the result of intra-Iraqi feuding, a plausible conclusion given the dozens of revenge killings that happen each day in the country. But a U.S. soldier came forward recently with rumors of American involvement in the alleged rape and killings.
On Monday, Steven D. Green, 21, a former private with the 502nd Infantry Regiment, was charged in Charlotte, N.C., in the case. The Army has said that no other soldiers have been charged or detained, but that several were under close supervision in Iraq.
Janabi said he learned of the inquiry involving the soldiers last week, and an American investigator asked him to tell his side of the story.
“He was saying that he wants to find out the truth,” Janabi said. “I told him I didn’t want any money or compensation. The most important thing is that the criminal must be punished in a punishment in the same level of the crime he committed. He must not be imprisoned for four to six months and that is all.”
Janabi said he asked the investigator why all this was happening now, when the killings took place three months earlier.
“He told me that a soldier confessed and we want to know the truth,” he said.
Then, Janabi said, the investigator told him that a high-ranking U.S. officer wished to pay his condolences to the family. The next day, he brought Fakhriya’s cousin, Mohammed, to the base along with the two boys to meet the commander.
“He hugged the children and kissed them several times,” Janabi said. “It was hard for him to control his tears.”
The discussions, Janabi said, now center on whether the bodies can be exhumed for autopsies. He said they received only a cursory examination when they were taken to the Mahmoudiya hospital in March.
Janabi said that the two boys were with their uncle in the village of Iskandariya, but that their faces told the effects of their misery.
“They lost their father and mother,” Janabi said. “They lost their house and sisters. Basically their family was too poor and they have not inherited anything. Their life is deplorable.”