03 April 2004
Yesterday morning, I sat down in a Baghdad home with a poor old man and his daughter who were mourning their adored son and brother who was killed by American soldiers. Now, you may ask why I do not write about Fallujah and the atrocities which occurred there three days ago: the cruel and atrocious murder of four Americans who were hauled, begging for their lives, from their two sports utility vehicles, burned, mutilated, dragged through the streets and then hanged naked - what was left of their bodies - from a decaying British railway bridge over the Euphrates river. The answer is simple. US proconsul Paul Bremer called their deaths "barbaric and inexcusable". Paul Bremer was right. But their deaths were not inexplicable.
The old man was Abdul-Aziz al-Amairi - his daughter's name is Sundus - and their son and brother was a journalist, a news cameraman whose brains I saw lying on the back seat of the car in which he, Ali Abdul Aziz, and his reporter colleague, Ali al-Khatib, were shot dead by US troops just over two weeks ago. Because I almost lost my own life on the Afghan border in December 2001, I take a special interest in such people - and their fate. They were journalists.
So here are a few facts. Two Thursdays ago, a rocket smashed into a hotel in southern Baghdad. The spanking new Arab news channel Arabia sent its crew to cover the story. The two Alis arrived with their driver, Abu Mariam, at the scene of the attack, parked their car 250m away and went up to speak to the US troops guarding the road. They were told they could film, but could do no "stand-uppers" - face-to-camera shots in front of the building. They completed their report, returned to their car and prepared to leave.
But as they did so, a 67-year-old man called Tariq Abdul-Ghani drove his Volvo down the road towards the US checkpoint, unaware that anything was amiss. He drove into a hail of American gunfire. His family - to whom I also spoke at length - says he received 36 bullets to his body. The Volvo crashed into one of the US vehicles. Tariq's widow and son say that he could not have seen the US checkpoint. The two reporters and their driver, Abu Mariam, were 120m from the scene. Ali al-Khatib, the reporter, told Abu Mariam not to follow the Volvo, but to turn the car across the low median and drive away in the opposite direction.
Abu Mariam obeyed the instruction. "We crossed the median and began to drive away down the opposite side of the road away from the Americans," he says. "We had gone quite a way when bullets hit our car. The bullets came through the back window. The cameraman was hit in the head, then Ali al-Khatib, the reporter, suddenly lay his head on my shoulder and said: 'Abu Mariam.' I made a right turn. Our Arabia colleagues called me on the phone and said, 'What is happening?' I said: 'Fuck you, I've got to find a hospital - I don't know where the nearest hospital is.' I took them to the Ibn al-Nafis hospital. Ali al-Amairi was dead on arrival. The other Ali died the next day."
Three more civilians had died in "liberated" Iraq. The Arabia channel responded with fury. They demanded an enquiry from the Americans and they decorated their head office in Baghdad with mourning posters. At first, the Americans announced that they could not have killed the reporter and cameraman. Both were killed with single shots to the head. How was it possible for US troops so far away to have been so accurate in killing two men with single shots to the head? Good point.
So with the son of the Volvo driver, Ali Tariq al-Hashimi, I visited the police station where he wished to register his father's death. The Iraqi police major at the Mesbah police station was polite, sympathetic and showed the documents on the case to the Volvo driver's son - and to me. The son asked for the car and its contents. You must ask the Americans for them, he was told.
"I went to the US base at the presidential palace," he told me. "They said I could not have the car back. I asked for my father's wallet and his money and his wristwatch and his ring. The soldier was on the phone and he said to me: 'You must forget the car - why do you want it?' I said I wanted to put it in my garden because this would be a symbol of my father's death. He was kind. He lowered his head and shook my hand and said how sorry he was."
Even more disturbing were the words of the major in the Mesbah police station. He told me that, shortly after the incident, American troops had come to the police station and had smashed the back window of the Volvo so that no traces remained of the bullet holes. Horrifically, the brains of Ali al-Amairi still lay on the back seat. But I climbed into the vehicle and counted nine rounds through the vehicle - through the back seats and the front window.
A few days later, the Americans came up with a new version of the killing. The Volvo had approached the checkpoint at speed. The soldiers thought they were under attack, fired at the vehicle and some of their bullets must have hit the Arabia car as it sped away. The US troops did not know they had hit the journalists. The Americans admitted responsibility, but it was not deliberate.
Hmmm. But there's a problem. The journalists crossed the median because the Volvo was a target. They didn't turn before the gunfire. So how could they have been hit by the same rounds that killed 67-year-old Tariq Abdul-Ghani when he was dead before they decided to leave? And why did American troops smash the back window of the Arabia car hours later when the bullet holes would have proved how many rounds had been fired at the car?
Back to the family living room yesterday morning. Old Abdul-Aziz was weeping and his daughter - Ali the cameraman's sister, Sundus - was crying too. "The Americans came to liberate us - and they killed our Ali. The last time we saw him he said that he was fine, but then he came back from the gate and asked his father to embrace him, and he kissed our father three times. He called us a few minutes before he went out on his last story. He said he would be OK."
Three more families - good, decent, Iraqi people, educated and believing in the same freedom and democracy that we Westerners believe in - now rage at the American occupation of Iraq. "I have only one brother and the Americans took him from us. From where can I get another brother?" she wept. Ali al-Amairi was married with no children. His reporter colleague had been married only four months. His wife was pregnant. The Volvo driver Abdul-Ghani leaves a widow and a son and three daughters. All gave me tea and assurances of their love of peace and love. And all hate the occupation and the American soldiers.
No, I don't think this excuses the barbarities in Fallujah. But I do understand that insatiable anger that these Iraqi relatives feel. The Americans, after all, killed three Western journalists on 9 April last year, and a cameraman outside the Abu Ghoreib prison a few months later and then an ABC cameraman in Fallujah last week. And the two Alis last month. "We regret the accidental shooting of the Arabia employees," the US military said this week. And that's that.
What more can I say? Maybe, as I wrote after other innocent deaths in Bosnia 12 years ago, I should end each of my reports with the words: Watch Out!