washingtonpost.com

Iraqi Villagers Say Strike Was Case of Mistaken Identity
Attack on Home, Convoy Breeds Anger

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 24, 2003; Page A15

QAIM, Iraq, June 23 -- Ahmed Hamad, a burly shepherd and smuggler, awoke to his mother's shouts. He looked at his watch. It was 1:10 a.m., he recalled. He gazed across a horizon illuminated by destruction, where U.S. aircraft were raining fire on four trucks. About a half-hour later, he said, a missile slammed into his house, killing his sister-in-law and her 1-year-old daughter.

The rest of his family, 10 in all, survived. On a hot summer night in Iraq's western desert, they had been sleeping outside on cots.

"Praise be to God," Hamad, 27, said from his hospital bed, shaking his head.

U.S. officials backed away from their initial assessments of whether the attack early Thursday near the village of Dhib killed top officials in the former Iraqi government, saying they had picked up no indications since the attack that Saddam Hussein or his sons, Uday and Qusay, had been in the convoy.

Angry and resentful, residents of the village interviewed today at Central Qaim Hospital, where two people wounded in the U.S. strike were taken, acknowledged that they could not know for certain all the occupants of the vehicles. And as smugglers, with a penchant for secrecy, they left some questions unanswered -- why the trucks were apparently empty, for instance. But they insisted the attack was a case of mistaken identity, that their houses were targeted unnecessarily and that the four vehicles were part of a smuggling attempt gone bad.

Residents said the U.S. blitz lasted two hours under cover of night. And they said they were left wondering why a village -- whose biggest change in the wake of the government's fall is that its sheep can graze closer to the Syrian border -- is now occupied by American forces.

"During the war, they flew over our village and never attacked us," Hamad said. "Why now?"

The U.S. military in Qaim refused to comment today on the attack. "The bottom line is it's an ongoing operation," said Capt. Aaron Barreda of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, which is based locally in a cement factory outside the city.

Dhib, about 70 miles southwest of Qaim, is one of a handful of villages that dot Iraq's western desert, a vast expanse of barren wadis and rocky escarpments bisected by the lush valley of the Euphrates River. Taking its name from wolves said to have once gathered there, Dhib is barely a town -- 20 houses built of brick and settled by shepherds that belong to the Abu Fahad tribe.

It sits just five miles from Syria, a border sufficiently porous for lucrative livestock smuggling that has permitted Dhib's residents to buy satellite dishes, generators, Toyota and Nissan pickups and about five satellite phones to facilitate their trade.

Residents said that the village was abuzz with that trade last Wednesday.

One smuggler, Majid Lahij, had brought 10 trailers of sheep destined for Syria from the northern city of Mosul to the village. At 10:30 p.m., he briefly stopped by Hamad's house, joining eight other guests who spent the evening watching the Arab satellite news channel Al-Arabiya. Soon after, Hamad said, he turned off the generator and the family went to sleep.

Within minutes of the departure of Lahij, who carried a satellite phone, helicopters were heard overhead.

"They were circling the village all night," Hamad said.

About two hours later, Hamad's mother awoke to shooting in the distance. Hamad said he recalled "continuous firing," targeting what the villagers said were four trucks used to transport livestock about five miles from the village, along the Syrian border.

"We were watching the shooting," Hamad said. "We saw the helicopters firing on the trucks."

At least two survivors from the vehicles, dressed in dishdashas, or long tunics, and traditional Arab headdress, fled through the village. They told residents that two people were killed in the attack -- one of whom they identified as Jumaa Abu Zaatir, a smuggler from the Abu Eissa tribe, which they said owned the four vehicles. The villagers did not know the identity of the second man.

At about 1:30 a.m., as the four trucks burned, the first of about five missiles struck Hamad's brick house, he said. Although everyone was sleeping outside, debris killed his sister-in-law, 20-year-old Hakima Khalil, and her daughter, Maha. Khalil's husband, Mohammed, was wounded in the foot. Hamad, his 24-year-old brother Mahmoud and his mother, Rasmiya Mishaal, 62, were also hurt. Mahmoud suffered the severest injuries, with deep cuts to his back and face.

After the attack began, villagers said cries pierced the air. Some contended that cluster bombs were used. Other villagers insisted that was wrong, that it was heavy machine-gun fire. They said they were saved by fleeing their homes. "When they hit Ahmed's house, it was like an alarm," said a neighbor, Mohammed Naim, 29. "Everybody ran away from their homes."

By the time the barrage ended, four houses were destroyed, along with two storage shacks, residents said. Villagers sitting in the hospital listed their losses like an insurance claim: three pickups, three tractors, one truck and 13 heads of sheep.

"We're not guilty," Hamad said. "Why are they attacking families? We want to know the reason they're attacking families."

Hamad and others said they did not know the occupants of all the vehicles. But they denied sheltering former Iraqi officials.

"No one came here, I swear to God," said Hamad, who suffered a cut to his left arm.

"Impossible," added a cousin, Asfug Arrak, 29.

"We're just shepherds," Naim said.

At that, a hospital assistant, Nasser Abdel-Halim, interrupted. "You're smugglers, tell the truth," he said.

Villagers said four U.S. armored vehicles arrived in the village at about 3 a.m., soon after the air attack ended. Soldiers followed, and the villagers took the wounded to the hospital in Qaim about an hour later.

"For the next two days, 24 hours a day, the helicopters were flying overhead," Arrak said.

Over the past week, armored vehicles and troops have surrounded the destroyed houses and the area where the vehicles were demolished, they said. On Sunday, helicopters landed nearby, unloading boxes of equipment. Villagers said Lahij, the smuggler coming from Mosul, was arrested on the road to Jordan on Wednesday morning, but they did not know the circumstances.

Outside the hospital, along houses built of stone and cement straddling the weathered cliffs of the Euphrates, several residents had heard rumors that Hussein might have died in the attack in Dhib. But without exception, no one was willing to believe them.

"The Americans want Iraqis to forget Saddam," said Shihab Ahmed, 30, a shepherd in a red-and-white kaffiyeh driving a tractor along the city's main road. "If they say they've killed Saddam, the Iraqi people can start forgetting him."

Nearby, selling gasoline from jerry cans lining the street, sat Nasser Jassim, 18. He spoke with conviction.

"No one can kill Saddam," he said. "No one can find him in order to kill him."

© 2003 The Washington Post Company