January 08, 2004

ZEYAD, an Iraqi blogger I regard as trustworthy, has posted a dreadful-sounding story of misbehavior by American troops in Iraq. I find the story difficult to believe, and it's secondhand, but Zeyad obviously believes it. Someone in Iraq needs to look into this as soon as possible.

UPDATE: Mixed reactions. Reader Noah Doyle doesn't believe this story:

I don't buy it.

'they tied them up both and led them to an area about three kilometres from the scene'

A patrol wandered off a mile and a half, just to push two guys into the water? Nobody in the chain of command, even in a patrol, took exception to this? And what soldier is going to walk a mile and a half out of his way, to do this? If they were inclined to randomly kill Iraqis (which I highly doubt), they could just shoot them, and claim self-defense.

'Only to send my son to his demise on his wedding day'

Now, we're just piling it on. What a terrible coincidence. This -reeks- of 'tragic victim' urban legend/spam.

'I was a victim, and there are and will be many more'

Er...many more? What does this have to do with the alleged murder of your son?

'but I wish that the procedures may put an end to the suffering of Iraqi mothers, we are reaping misery every day from actions of American soldiers with no regard to our human life, our dignity, and our culture and values.'

Again...there seems to be more concern here for the general presence of American forces in Iraq, rather than the suffering of one mother who has lost a child.

'I am assured that you know terrorism and what is regarded as a terrorist act. Pray tell me have you ever seen or heard about a terrorist act that is considered any uglier than this crime, which was followed by crushing the car and levelling it to the ground by American military vehicles?'

Ah, yes. The 'Americans as terrorists' meme. And this woman actually lives in Iraq, with 300,000 (at least) in mass graves? And of course, one more insult to injury, crushing the car, presumably with a tank. That's a damn good way to throw a track. Those evil Americans, they did -everything- wrong!

'Zaydun's cousin said that the soldiers were drunk and looked tired'

Of course they were drunk. We couldn't leave out any bit that might horrify good Muslims, could we? This one's crap.

Brian Dunn is also skeptical:

Certainly, if true, the guilty should be punished. It is unacceptable both from a mission standpoint and a moral standpoint.

But this part makes no sense: "Zaydun's cousin said that the soldiers were drunk and looked tired, and that during their ride they even chatted and joked with one of the soldiers who spoke a little Arabic. After he managed to get out of the water he remained hidden because he could see that the unit was searching for them using flashlights and he was scared to death."

That's pretty terrible light discipline. Would they really be on a mission without night vision apparatus? Would they really give away their position if potential snipers were in the area? This is a dangerous area of Iraq after all.

I'm just saying it doesn't make much sense. And there is always a ready audience for tales of American atrocities out there (and here, too, for that matter).

Robert Sulentic is also dubious:

Dreadful stories are usually just that. Look closely at the letter, and you can see language that implies a fake. As one of the commenters said, "What unit patch were they wearing?" The whole thing is just too contrived.

I'll bet, much like the lady who claimed she lost the lottery ticket, that this is made up. It preys upon the gullible, and those who want to believe the worst.

I'm sure an investigation will get done, but it will just be a waste of time, and plenty will then doubt the results. More FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt).

Zeyad got hoodwinked.

On the other hand, Howard Owens emails:

Glenn, fwiw ... the letter has a ring of authenticity to me.

There have always been criminals in the military -- always will be. It's part of the human condition, so it doesn't surprise (though it saddens me) that something like this might actually happen. It may actually be more surprising that there have been fewer of these incidents. The fact that a local commander would not believe the story can probably be attributed to two factors -- there are probably enough Iraqis who lie about actions of soldiers to make such claims sound incredible, and the high degree of confidence commanders have in their troops to be professional in all their conduct -- and it is confidence supported by good reason. No local commander wants to believe something like this could happen, but that doesn't mean it isn't worth a thorough investigation. Now that the charge has been made internationally, it needs to be treated seriously.

But what really prompted me to write was one heartening message the letter sends -- and that is the implicit trust in the rule of law. The letter writer seems to believe without question that the U.S. will do justice, and that the rule of law is a given. In a country that has been without the rule of law for 25 years, or longer, this letter demonstrates that we are not fools to hope that the rule of law can quickly take root in Iraq.

Now the U.S. must do its part in this case and treat it with all seriousness.

Well, that last part's right. The story doesn't ring true to me, I have to say, and if it weren't coming via Zeyad or some other reliable source I'd be inclined to dismiss it. But he's proven to be reliable in the past, which means that this is worth looking into. Darren Kaplan is writing his Senators, and recommends that you do the same.

ANOTHER UPDATE: John Frederick, who says he's a former platoon leader with the 82d Airborne, also doubts this story:

There is no way that you will find a soul in the Army willing to walk 3 km at night, in a combat zone, for anything other than a legit purpose. Certainly not while pushing/pulling/carrying 2 tied up Iraqis who were probably not exactly
following much noise discipline.

Gotta agree with Noah on the light discipline part as well. Any unit on
patrol is going to have night vision for most, if not all, members. The
PVS-7's have a very bright IR light that lights up the night as well as
any mini-mag lite (which is what most infantry guys will carry). You
simply don't shine white light at night - it can be seen for a long,
long way and attracts the bad guys.

He also notes that patrols have specific missions and objectives, and aren't likely to drop them for this sort of thing.

Greg Schwinghammer makes a similar point:

I was a scout platoon leader in Kuwait in 1991, and tank platoon leader in Germany before that. Regarding the allegedly crushed truck, it is absolutely possible that Americans are rolling over trucks and cars in the middle of the desert. One of your readers suggested it would not happen because it is a good way to throw a track. Not really. If you go straight over, nothing breaks. Throughout Kuwait after the war, there were abandoned vehicles littered through the desert (all facing north to Iraq), and soldiers used them for target practice or rolled over them.

As for the rest, sounds like absolute garbage. You are right on: we do not have soldiers wandering around, "Three Kings"-like, on their own. Soldiers do not wander off for three clicks without someone noticing. Also, none of the soldiers are drunk--that is just idiotic.

I hope the investigation checks the alleged survivor, and interrogates him carefully. It would not surprise me to find he and the dead teenager were doing something wrong, stupid, or just one just made a dumb mistake (like wrecking the car), and is blaming the Americans to stay out of trouble.

That's speculation, of course, but I'd be interested in finding out what happened. Chris Jefferson emails:

The skeptical reactions of many to Zayed's translation is understandable.

I too have trouble believing that an American recce patrol would be out drunk. That kind of thing can get you killed, and there isn't a squad leader in theater who will let his guys do that. Going 3km away from the AOR isn't too likely, either. However, it's important to note that Zayed and others like him are willing to trust the U.S. Army to deal lawfully with this situation.

For that reason alone, whatever stink bombs might be in the story, an investigation is warranted. Our Army must continue to have a reputation as a terribly destructive fighting force, but one that is just.

And that's right. Roger Simon has more. Meanwhile Patrick Smith emails:

If this map (Link) is to be believed, the dam itself is at least 50km away from the main road between Baghdad and Samarra. Three km? Maybe they were taking a scenic route?

Beats me.

MORE: Reader Jacob Pemberton emails:

Regarding the location of the dam that the victims were allegedly pushed from, I did note that the map you linked to showed a dam very close to Samarra (3km?), though this was not the same dam that the accuser cited (Tharthar). So, assuming that this is just a case of the wrong name being cited, this does not in itself disprove the story. Still, I tend to think that you (and others) are correct - the story sounds fishy, but should be properly investigated.

You'd think a local would get the name right, but you can get in a lot of trouble just relying on maps. But I agree with the bottom line: sounds fishy, but should be investigated. I think, BTW, that this post by Bruce Rolston makes the same point as Pemberton. So does reader Jon Mann, who emails:

I have one thing to add on the trip from Tharthar dam.

I suspect the letter author meant that the kids were taken to the gates that divert water from the Tigris to the Tharthar Basin. (You can see the canal from the Tigris to the Tharthar basin on the map Patrick Smith links to, or you can read a description of the flood control project here; (search for "Tigris" or "Tharthar").

(I also suspect that the letter is wrong, though, particularly because it claims that small patrols are wandering unescorted in the Samarra region, and are using hand-held lights instead of nightvision.)

Ken Lammers, meanwhile, thinks it's apocryphal:

What seals it for me is that I have heard this story - in multiple variations - before. Back when I was less hefty and a little younger I was an Arabic translator for the U.S. army. As such I was deployed to the Gulf during the first war. Kuwaitis were telling the exact same stories about Iraqi soldiers. . . . Not that means this shouldn't be investigated. It must be. As demonstrated above, this has a good possibility of growing into some nasty propaganda and must be countered if at all possible.

Zeyad has updated his post with material that clears up some of the questions, though by no means all. He says that he thought it was suspicious at first, too, but has changed his mind. As I say, he's been reliable before, and I'm inclined to trust him -- but he wasn't there. Hence the need to investigate.

STILL MORE: Jeff Jarvis: "If true, we need to show that American justice prevails. If false, we need to get the truth out there quickly."

MORE STILL: Milblogger The Mudville Gazette notes that there are numerous bogus stories of American atrocities, and points out similarities between those and this story. Which doesn't make Zeyad's report bogus, of course, but does explain why I would be suspicious if Zeyad hadn't been reliable in the past. Meanwhile, David Warner emails:

What's more important? Whether we trust Zeyad or whether Zeyad trusts us?

Thought so. What's the best way to win his? To trust him. How about offering him some tips as to how he could investigate this story? What we would do if we caught wind of something like this here?

The story is likely not true - let's help Zeyad discover this for himself...

Stay tuned.

YET MORE: Chief Wiggles is looking into it. Belmont Club has more, but I can't reach The Chief's site at the moment. Not unusual for blog-city, alas.

MORE YET: Zeyad has updated again, with more responses, and a promise to report what he finds regardless of the results:

One thing is certain. Zaydun is dead. How or who or where or why are yet to be confirmed. So don't jump to any conclusions. I never asked anyone to blindly believe the story, I just asked that you do something to help it get investigated.

I never implied that I was 100% convinced about the details. They were really really troubled when I talked to them and they just handed me the letter and the picture and asked me to do whatever I can do about it. There are other relatives of the family that are involved in this and I'm not coordinating things with them.

However as I promised I will stay tuned with the family and keep you all updated on how the investigation proceeds. I am aware of the huge responsibility I have to my readers, and even if some parts of the story or all of it turn out to be fabricated by the cousin, You can be sure that I will report it.

Also, reader Peter Koren weighs in on the lights:

My son is a 2LT. in Baghdad (1st Armored Division) and leads a platoon -- actually a battery as artillery soldiers are labeled -- on patrols and raids. I doubt very much the story of such a gross breakdown in discipline, but that is not what I want to address.

The use of lights and absence of NVGs is taken as evidence for a bogus story, but I would not hang my hat on that notion. Many, perhaps all, of the patrol and raiding teams have been issued weapons mounted lithium powered flashlights for night use. My son said in an old email (lost on my old crashed hard drive -- argggggg!) that it puts light on the target at 100 meters equal to that of sunlight. He said that this tactic is being used rather than using darkness and NVGs, but did not explain why. My guess is that in urban combat, there are too many lights in the city and that causes problems in using night vision gear.

I don't think that this was anywhere near a city, but there you are: make of this what you will. I have also emailed this link to some folks I know in Iraq, who are looking into it.