US soldiers shoot first, no questions asked

HIS name was Ahmed Hameed and he was 36 years old. He had taken the wrong turning up to the checkpoint on the July 14 Bridge which spans the Tigris on the south-eastern edge of what used to be known in Baghdad as the Green Zone, but which has now been renamed the International Zone.

Now he lies in a body-bag a few yards away from the US army gun tower which opened fire on him as he tried to turn his moped around.

Soldiers from the US Airborne surround him, those at the back peering over the shoulders of the ones in front to get a better view as the bag is unzipped. In the tower, the heavy .240-calibre machine-gun hangs limply on its mount, pointing at the ground. The gunner is leaning on the parapet, looking out across the city.

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Ahmed’s head is turned away to one side, his mouth open, the blood which streaks his face already dry. His right hand is by his side, the left curled across his stomach. The fingers stop a few inches from the inch-wide hole just above his groin. Someone has tried to stem the bleeding from another hole in the top of his chest, but there was too much blood. It has soaked his T-shirt, which is pulled up to expose the wounds, and poured down his body, mingling with his sweat, leaving pale rivulets across the skin.

Twenty yards away, his maroon Honda Spacy moped lies on its right-hand side in front of a concrete barrier. There is a sign painted on the barrier: it says "Do not enter or you will be shot", in English and Arabic. There is a small bullet entry hole in the top left-hand side of the seat, and a much larger exit hole on the right-hand side of the rear fairing. The bike must have been upright when the bullet struck, and almost sideways on to the gun tower. Petrol has leaked from the tank and on to the tarmac.

Captain Mohammhad Mahde is taking in the details of the scene. Mahde is an officer in the Iraqi police service, based inside the International Zone. He bends low over Ahmed’s body, pushing down his black nylon boxer shorts with the blue stripe around the waistband which poke out above his grey trousers, so that he can get a better look at the lower wound.

"He was coming the wrong way," a US soldier is explaining to him, gesturing towards the end of the bridge’s exit ramp away around the curve of the concrete wall on the right-hand side of the road looking south.

"He didn’t stop. They hit him and he got up, and they fired at him again. He got up again and started running away, and because he was running away they didn’t shoot him. But then he just sort of collapsed."

The body-bag is zipped closed. Mahde stands up and walks towards the moped, and the soldier follows. "We yelled at him to stop," he says. "He passed a few of the signs to stop, but he just kept going."

Mahde walks past another concrete barrier, painted in English and Arabic with three signs: "Exit only", "Do not enter", and "No Stopping". There is no problem with the Arabic, he says. It is quite clear. At the foot of the exit ramp, a small crowd watches the soldiers and the policemen as they walk slowly towards them. This is the reason the soldiers called Mahde’s police station; they wanted help to control the crowd. Mahde, though, wants to know what happened. The soldiers eye him warily, but no-one tries to stop him.

Mahde pulls out a notebook, writes down a few things, asks the troops some more questions. He walks on to a thin patch of sand that has been deposited on the tarmac. It is damp in a couple of places, a slightly darker orange than the rest. There is a small bloodstain on the checkpoint side of the line of sand which has not been covered over. On the low concrete wall about three feet away there are splashes where blood has sprayed up, and a couple of flecks of flesh stick to the wall a foot or so closer to the gun tower. "They killed him here," he says.

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The soldiers say no. "The man got back here and collapsed," a captain says. "We just covered up the blood."

Ahmed’s shoes lie on the tarmac about four feet apart, between where his body now lies and the spot where he died. The left shoe is closer to the blood-stained sand, the right back towards the gun tower. They are brown leather, quite new, a picture of a stag and the name of the maker, the Dawara Company, embossed on the inner sole. On the bridge side of the final concrete barrier between the shoes and Mahde’s body, there are four rough hollows where bullets struck. An American soldier points them out; he refers to them as splash marks.

The call came in to the police station a little after 10am from a US captain in the Airborne. Dwight Murphy took it; he was sitting in Mahde’s office at the time, chatting to the captain. Murphy is the deputy commander for support operations with the Civilian Police Assistance Training Team, the organisation set up by coalition forces to rebuild the Iraqi police service.

They got into Mahde’s police Land Cruiser, with its blue and white livery and blue and red flashing light, and drove to the bridge. When they reached it, there was a US Bradley armoured vehicle parked across the carriageway at the southern end, the checkpoint end. Its main cannon was trained on the approaching police car, as was the gun of the soldier in the turret.

With the index finger of his right hand, the soldier made a horizontal circling gesture, then pointed back up the carriageway, indicating that the car should turn around and leave. Murphy held up his US identification card. The soldier repeated his gesture.

The driver began to swing the vehicle around, but Murphy had taken out his mobile phone and was speaking to the captain who had called the police station. The car stopped. The soldier in the turret was speaking into his headset, his eyes still on the police car. He gestured the policemen forward.

Murphy is crouched next to the sand, looking at the blood splashed up the wall. "He was probably shot back here where his body fell," he says.

"Maybe he was afraid," Mahde said. "Maybe he had explosives? He lived in this city, he worked here, he knew this way. Why go here?" The two men walk slowly back towards the moped. "We haven’t opened it up yet," one soldier tells them.

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One of the soldiers picks up the machine and rests it on its stand. The right-hand mirror has twisted round slightly, but there is no other obvious damage, save for the bullet holes.

Another soldier has fetched a jemmy; he pokes it under the seat and leans down on it to pop open the lock. It takes a quarter of a minute, perhaps a little longer, before the lock gives. The soldier places the seat on the ground. Inside, there is nothing but a thin black plastic bag of the type used in some of the city’s shops. Inside the bag are two sheets of paper. The soldier hands them to a captain, who looks at them briefly and hands them to Mahde. They are Ahmed’s identity papers. There is nothing else in the bag.

Mahde asks them to take the body to the morgue. The Americans do not like the idea. Why can’t the body be collected by the morgue, they ask. Mahde says his men will take the body and the bike. He looks around him. "This guy made a mistake, but he didn’t put the bike in that place or the shoes in that place," he says.

"Are you done here?" the US captain asks. "Can we open the checkpoint again?" Mahde nods. They can, he says. He has no authority over the US soldiers, but he will make a report.

He and Murphy start to walk back towards the police car. The US soldiers follow, grumbling among themselves. They do not understand what is happening. One can be heard complaining: "All the other bodies, they just put in the truck and took them away."

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