Incident on Baghdad's Airport Road

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Yuri Kozyrev / Noor for Time

The seven children and two grandchildren of Hafedh Aboud Mehdi, who was killed by American forces in Baghdad, crowd in the family's small Baghdad living room.

Updated: 7 p.m. July 27, 2008

Known affectionately to his friends and family as Abu Ziad (father of Ziad), Hafedh Aboud Mehdi, 58, woke up on the morning of June 25, packed a lunch for himself and his son, as he often does, and left his home in Baghdad's central Karrada district at 7:30 a.m. He was driving his 1996 maroon Opel Vita en route to Baghdad International Airport, where he has worked at the airport bank for the past 13 years.

That morning Mehdi ran into his 21-year-old son Mohammed, who works as a driver shuttling bank employees to and from work. His son had been stopped in traffic at a checkpoint on the way to the airport, with six people stuffed in his car. Having a VIP pass that allows him to proceed through checkpoints without waiting in the usual lines, Mehdi volunteered to take a couple of female passengers off his son's hands. Maha Adnan Youssef, 31, and Suroor Shahid Ahmed, 32, decided to switch cars.

What happened next became the subject of fierce debate. When Mohammed arrived at the office, he was surprised to see that his father still hadn't shown up. When a co-worker popped his head in to tell Mohammed his father's car had broken down, he got back on the road to see what the problem was. Not far from the airport, Mohammed discovered his father's vehicle consumed by flames, with an American military convoy preventing him from getting any closer. "I was in agony trying to do something," he told TIME a week later. "Seeing my father burning in the vehicle, I fainted."

According to a U.S. military press release issued the same day, a car carrying "three criminals" opened fire on a convoy of U.S. troops stopped on the roadside on the way to Baghdad International Airport at 8:40 a.m. "The Soldiers [from the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division] returned fire, which resulted in the vehicle running off the road and striking a wall. The vehicle then exploded," read the release. The military statement also said that "a weapon was recovered from the wreckage" and "two MND-B convoy vehicles received bullet hole damage from the small arms fire." But the Iraqi police report, which was obtained by TIME, had a different account: "Twenty-seven bullet holes [were found] on the right-hand side of [Mehdi's] car. [We] found two bullets of caliber 50 mm inside the car ... We did not see or find any weapons or empty cartridges inside the car."

The Iraqi police report identified the three "charred" bodies inside the car as Hafedh Aboud Mehdi, Youssef and Ahmed. If the trio had in fact been armed, says an Interior Ministry official, it would have been the first time ever that an Iraqi had gotten a weapon through all the checkpoints to try to carry out an attack on that stretch of road. The contention over what happened — with the Iraqi accounts at odds with the initial U.S. report — had overtones of other controversial episodes, including the 2005 events in Haditha.

The airport-road deaths have proved especially infuriating to Iraqis while their government is engaged in talks to establish the long-term legal status of U.S. troops and contractors operating in their country. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was so outraged by the shooting that last month he ordered a formal court inquiry into the incident. Should the Iraqi judge assigned to the case decide to summon as witnesses the American soldiers involved, he will pose a direct challenge to the current legal status of actions carried out by U.S. troops in the country. Perhaps even more critical at this stage of the negotiations is how the U.S. military has dealt with information on the deaths. Not till the evening of July 27, more than a month after Mehdi and his passengers were killed (and hours after this story first appeared on, did the U.S. military release the conclusions of its own investigation, essentially agreeing with the Iraqi police reports and the conclusions of a private security firm contracted to manage the checkpoints on the road.

The day after Mehdi, Youssef and Ahmed burned to death in Mehdi's car, the U.S. military reiterated its initial report. U.S. military spokesman Lieut. Colonel Steven Stover responded to questions posed by TIME via e-mail, saying, "We stand by the information we sent in the press release ... There are photos of the two U.S. Military vehicles with bullet holes."

Reports and interviews collected by TIME indicated otherwise. For the past year, the road to Baghdad's airport, where Mehdi's car burned that morning, has been one of the most heavily secured roads in Baghdad. The Iraqi government has contracted a private British security firm, Global Strategies Group, to control a series of checkpoints leading up to the airport, with multiple ID checks and a car X-ray scan for explosives. At one checkpoint, passengers are asked to exit the car completely, leaving all doors open, including the trunk and hood, while Global security guards lead sniffer dogs around each car, checking inside and outside again for explosives.

"It's impossible for anyone to get through here with a weapon. Even Ali al-Dabbagh [Iraq's government spokesman] can't get a weapon in," a security guard at the second Global checkpoint told TIME a week after the incident. He said Mehdi must have been "driving fast." Says another Global official who was on the road the day of the shooting: "I know they were unarmed ... It was the U.S. military shooting three civilians. This is public knowledge."

An Iraqi witness to the event who also drives the airport road each day for work said he was approaching Mehdi's Opel from a distance when the Americans fired. "I was about 400 meters behind the car, and suddenly I saw dust coming up because the Americans were firing. When I saw what was happening, I braked and started to put the car in reverse," said the man, who wanted to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. "One bullet penetrated the dashboard on my car. I turned the car around and drove back in the wrong direction, telling other cars to stop."

The U.S. military does not normally patrol the section of road where the incident occurred, so Mehdi would have had no way of knowing that he would encounter an American convoy there that morning. "No, they are not usually there," says U.S. military spokesman Mark Cheadle, referring to the convoy from the 4th Brigade that was parked at the roadside. According to a Global Security statement obtained by TIME, the American platoon had been on its way to a military base near the airport when they were forced to pull over because a humvee was having engine trouble. It said one of the soldiers on the ground said he thought he heard gunfire and alerted the others through their headsets. The gunner of the first humvee quickly rotated in his turret to face the road and fired on a car that was speeding past the convoy. That car turned out to be Mehdi's.

Even if the father of seven and his two female co-workers had planned to attack a platoon of armored American humvees, it would have been a sure suicidal mission to carry it out with "small arms," as the military identified their weapons — which generally refers to rifles or handguns — on such a heavily guarded road with no escape path. It is surrounded by blast walls on either side.

Like the Iraqi police report, the Global statement said no weapons had been found at the scene and Mehdi's car had been searched at all the Global checkpoints prior to the event. It also stated there was "no evidence" the three people in the car had displayed any hostility toward the American convoy.

Mehdi, who, his oldest son says, "loved the Americans," was the sole breadwinner for his large family of 13, which includes the two wives of his oldest sons and three grandchildren. The Shi'ite family lived in the predominantly Sunni neighborhood of al-Dora in southern Baghdad up until the peak of sectarian violence in late 2006. That was when Mehdi's youngest son Ali, then 4, was kidnapped by insurgents and held for ransom for more than a week. After paying to get him back, the family left all their furniture and belongings and fled to Karrada, a safer neighborhood in central Baghdad. "The people who kidnapped our son were from our neighborhood," says Mehdi's widow Iman Kadhem, 48. "Now they have taken over our house, and they don't want to leave. They have taken everything in the house."

For the past year and a half, Mehdi's large family has been forced to crowd into two small, sparsely furnished concrete rooms of a rented home in Karrada. "He was the only one who supported the family," says Kadhem, sobbing. "How will we pay the rent?"

"Abu Ziad would never have carried a gun — let alone a sponge in his pocket," says an airport employee who was good friends with Mehdi and who expressed intense anger following his death. Mehdi's son Mohammed also says his father never owned any weapons. "We don't have a single bullet in our house."

On July 19, the three families of the deceased say they were invited to the airport police station to meet with American officers, identified by Mohammed as Brigadier General Robin Swan, the deputy commanding general for multinational forces in Baghdad, and a "Lieut. Colonel Lather." According to Mohammed, the military offered each family $10,000, but the families refused the money, demanding a formal letter of apology first. "The lieut. colonel kept saying he was sorry for the incident. They said it was a very big tragedy. But they never said they were wrong or they had made a mistake," says Mohammed. "They never gave a reason for why they were apologizing." The U.S. military has not confirmed that this meeting took place.

The U.S. military concluded its own closed investigation into the event two weeks ago but released its findings only late on Sunday, July 27. It read in part, "While [American soldiers were] working on the vehicle, a civilian vehicle approached the rear of the convoy at what appeared to the soldiers to be a high rate of speed despite several obstructions in the road. Soldiers located at the rear of the convoy perceived the rapidly approaching vehicle as a threat and executed established escalation of force measures. When the vehicle failed to respond to the soldiers' warning measures, it was engaged with small arms fire. Initial statements included information about a weapon in the vehicle; the investigation confirmed no weapon was recovered from the vehicle. The initial statement resulted from the numerous soldier witnesses who strongly believed they were being fired upon from the vehicle, and a misunderstanding that the Iraqi Police arriving at the scene collected a weapon. A thorough investigation determined that the driver and passengers were law abiding citizens of Iraq."

The Iraqi police report listed the American soldiers in the convoy who fired on Mehdi's car as "Lt. Thanie Painter ... driver Sgt. Phillips ... Sgt. Sagona ... Sgt. Elliot and Sgt. Shakespeare." The military has not confirmed the names of the soldiers involved or commented on their status. The U.S. military statement on the results of the investigation quote Colonel Allen Batschelet, chief of staff of the coalition forces in Baghdad, as saying, "This was an extremely unfortunate and tragic incident ... Our deepest regrets of sympathy and condolences go out to the family. We are taking several corrective measures to amend and eliminate the possibility of such situations happening in the future." According to the press release, the U.S. investigation concluded that "neither the soldiers nor civilians involved in the incident were at fault."

Nevertheless, the Mehdi, Youssef and Ahmed families want justice. "The flames in our hearts over [Suroor's] death will not die until God orders justice upon the people whose hands are soaked in [her] blood," Ahmed's sister Tahani Shahid Ahmed told TIME in a written statement recently. "We just want to know the reason that they killed him," says Mehdi's widow. "He didn't belong to any party, and he's not a Ba'athist. He was only an employee in the bank." Asked how she would confront the soldiers who killed her husband, she says, "I would ask them, Why did you do this to us? Look at our situation. We barely have enough space to sleep."