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When Children Are ‘Collateral Damage’

Times Staff Writer

The raid began when the beat of helicopters punctured the predawn stillness over the village of Ishaqi. The American troops descended from the sky onto the farmlands north of the capital, townspeople said, and the hunt for suspected insurgents was on.

By the time light broke that morning in March, at least 11 people inside the home of Faiz Hirrat Khalaf, a schoolteacher and beekeeper, had been killed. Among the dead were a 9-month-old baby, four other children younger than 7 and their grandmother. The corpses were riddled with bullet holes, ripped by shrapnel and coated in dust that rained down when the roof collapsed from explosions.

Unlike the Marines accused of slaughtering Iraqi civilians in Haditha, the troops who stormed Ishaqi that morning have been cleared of wrongdoing by U.S. military investigators.

The military concluded that the troops in Ishaqi were forced to use heavy firepower after they were shot at from within the house. The dead family was what the military calls “collateral damage” -- 11 more deaths in a war that has felled thousands of Iraqi civilians.

Witness reports and footage filmed by neighbors hours after the attack indicate that a fierce gunfight took place at the house. But beyond that, there is little on which the Americans and villagers agree.

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Regardless of which account is correct, the political damage caused by the civilian deaths has been done. Among war-weary Iraqis, the wider Arab world and, increasingly, the American public, civilian deaths of any kind help chip away at tolerance for the presence of foreign troops in Iraq.

The deaths in Ishaqi serve as a stark reminder that the killing of innocents is hard to avoid in a war in which insurgents mingle among townspeople. Troops are generally not investigated, let alone punished, for deaths that occur accidentally in the course of hunting and fighting guerrillas.

The military says the troops in this case came to hunt down a Kuwaiti-born Al Qaeda cell leader and a local bomb maker. The body of the Kuwaiti was found inside the house, they said, and the bomb maker was captured.

Neighbors counter that Khalaf, the homeowner who died along with his family, was not a participant in the insurgency. Surviving family members deny that insurgents were present in the house.

The townspeople characterize the slayings as an atrocity visited on an innocent family. Some family members said troops tied up their relatives and shot them execution-style.

“Even if they claim there were terrorists in this house, OK, kill them,” said Adil Janabi, Khalaf’s 28-year-old brother-in-law. “But not the children, women and innocent people. To kill in this way, this we do not understand.”

The footage shot by neighbors is not definitive. Some of the corpses appeared to have bullet holes in their heads, but they also appear to have been shot in the sides, chest and arms. Some of the bodies were so mangled it was impossible to tell how they had been killed.

To the people of Ishaqi, who poured from their homes at daybreak to haul the bodies from the rubble, the raw grief of that March morning remains vivid.

Months after the Khalaf family was killed, some townspeople greeted the Haditha scandal with a measure of hope: Perhaps the violent death of their own local children would now be recognized, they thought.

“We were happy when the Haditha massacre surfaced after having been forgotten for so long,” Janabi said. “We lived through a hard time in which we did not know if the Americans would kill us in the same way. We hope this issue will be investigated, especially now that the media are talking about it.”

Marines in Haditha are under investigation, accused of bursting into homes and shooting families execution-style in retaliation for the death of one of their comrades. But unlike the consistent claims of coldblood ed slaughter in Haditha, the witness accounts from Ishaqi draw a turbulent, nuanced illustration of war.

Witnesses describe a chaotic volley of shooting in which it was unclear who was firing the guns. They also give a mixed account of the duration of the attack: Some people thought the shooting went on for two hours; others thought it lasted just half an hour.

“We were hearing the crack of the bullets,” Janabi said. “We couldn’t tell what was going on.”

The deaths at Ishaqi were controversial from the first hours. The U.S. military at first announced that troops had killed one insurgent, two women and a child. Iraqi police and neighbors immediately contradicted the Americans, saying that 11 people had been wantonly killed.

“Where did we get the other corpses?” said Essa Hirrat Khalaf, brother of the slain head of the household. “Did we buy them from the market?”

A former Iraqi army colonel who lived next door to his slain younger brother, Khalaf said he had crept into a nearby orchard and witnessed the gunfight from a hiding place in the trees. Khalaf and other neighbors say that after shooting the family members, the Americans bombed the house to bury the evidence in debris.

The military later acknowledged that its initial death count had been incorrect, saying that bodies had been hidden in the wreckage. U.S. officials now say that 13 people were killed in the attacks -- two more than the family’s count.

Footage of the scene showed bullets strewn on the floor. The gunfight had chewed the walls of the house, torn through the furniture and left the bodies with holes that seemed to have come from all angles. The footage does not provide any evidence that the family members’ wrists were tied or cuffed.

Neighbors described Faiz Khalaf, the 27-year-old homeowner, as a quiet family man with an avid interest in teaching the Koran and a fondness for his honeybees.

“I knew Faiz very well, and he was never involved in any resistance activities,” said Muhyee Hatim, a schoolteacher who lives nearby. “He only paid attention to his courses in the Koran, his school and his beehives.”

The night the Americans arrived, Faiz was home with his 26-year-old wife, Sumaia, and their three children, whose ages ranged from 9 months to 5 years. The children were found dead in their pajamas, one little girl’s hair in pigtails, according to footage shot the next morning.

Fazia Hirrat Khalaf, a 29-year-old teacher, was also staying at her brother’s house with her two children. She was left a single mother after U.S. troops killed her husband last year, accusing him of planting a roadside bomb, neighbors said. She and her two children were killed.

So was Aziz Khaleed Jarmout, 24, and his bride, Nidhal Mohammed. The couple had been married only a week.

The graphic footage shot by neighbors hours after the raid shows dead children with their intestines hanging out and a woman with her head shattered beyond recognition.

A copy was given to the Los Angeles Times by the Muslim Scholars Assn., a hard-line Sunni group opposed to the presence of U.S. troops.

“Where is Islam? Where are the Arabs?” yells a neighbor in the homemade documentary. “Why don’t the foreigners leave the country and leave us alone? All Muslims, why are you keeping silent?”

The organization has distributed copies of the recording to foreign human rights organizations and the United Nations, a spokesman said. With its gory pictures and religious appeals to fellow Muslims, the DVD bears the hallmarks of recruiting videos circulated through mosques in the region to stir opposition to the U.S.-led war.

After the deaths, townspeople said, U.S. soldiers paid several visits. They offered to build a school on the site of the ruined house, Janabi said. In another visit, he said, the U.S. soldiers pointed out that one of the children had been named Osama -- a common Muslim name.

“Such silly justifications mean they do not even want to say, ‘I’m sorry,’ ” Janabi said. “They try to insist that they are right, they did not make any mistake.”

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Times staff writer Raheem Salman in Baghdad and a special correspondent in Ishaqi contributed to this report.


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