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The U.S. told them terrorists killed their brother. It was a lie they held for years

Vendors sell various goods to shoppers at "the Thieves' Market" in Baghdad.
Claire Harbage
/
NPR
Vendors sell various goods to shoppers at "the Thieves' Market" in Baghdad.

BAGHDAD — There's a warren of narrow walkways in central Baghdad with stalls and little shops, bags of spices and nuts, food and ice cream. The air has a sweet scent, and clusters of men sip tea and chat, or haggle over antiques. They call it "the Thieves' Market."

The last time we were here, as the Iraq War droned on almost 20 years ago, Westerners could scarcely go outside without becoming a target. Today, not even a hard glance. We've come to find a piece to the puzzle we've been trying to solve.

We've been investigating a horrible incident from April 2004 that killed two Marines and an Iraqi man when a mortar was accidentally dropped on a schoolhouse in Fallujah.

The Marines knew almost immediately it was an accidental case of "friendly fire" the deadliest such Marine-on-Marine attack in decades and they opened an investigation. But the families of the dead Marines were told it was enemy fire and didn't get the truth for three years. It seems the son of a prominent politician — Marine 1st Lt. Duncan D. Hunter — was involved in the mishap. His father, Duncan L. Hunter, was chairman of the powerful House Armed Services Committee at the time. Rather than tell the truth, the Marine Corps buried the report of its investigation for years.

<strong>Left:</strong> Duncan D. Hunter, son of then-U.S. Rep. Duncan L. Hunter, on Feb. 27, 2008. <strong>Right:</strong> Chairman Duncan L. Hunter, R-Calif., at an Armed Services Committee hearing on conduct and support of Operation Iraqi Freedom on May 21, 2004.
/ Chris Maddaloni and Douglas Graham/Roll Call/Getty Images
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Chris Maddaloni and Douglas Graham/Roll Call/Getty Images
Left: Duncan D. Hunter, son of then-U.S. Rep. Duncan L. Hunter, on Feb. 27, 2008. Right: Chairman Duncan L. Hunter, R-Calif., at an Armed Services Committee hearing on conduct and support of Operation Iraqi Freedom on May 21, 2004.

But that report? It never even mentions the death of a third man, an Iraqi man named Shihab. His family still didn't know the truth.

Just finding Shihab's name was a challenge. The Marines wounded that day in Fallujah hardly knew him, because Shihab was there working with an Army psychological operations team, which drops leaflets and broadcasts messages, trying to assist the local population and irritate the insurgents. We eventually found one of those Army soldiers, Duane Jolly, who described his fond memories of Shihab.

Jolly recalled how Shihab refused to repeat some of the Army team's messages, the ones with rough language or sexual content.

"He was quite devout," recalls Jolly, a retired sergeant major. "He was like, 'I wanna help you in every way, but I'm not gonna lower myself, in the eyes of my God.'"

Shihab was Shia, and Fallujah was a Sunni area, turning more violent with al-Qaida moving in. He was nervous about going there. Jolly convinced him it would be OK.

"I told him, 'Don't worry buddy. You know, if people start shooting at us, you just get behind me. I guarantee I'll take care of you.' And that's the part, you know, of therapy that I still have a hard time with and still do."

Awadh al Taei, from NPR's Baghdad office, spent months tracking down Shihab's family. We gave him a photo of Shihab. He went to hospitals, the morgue, government offices. Finally he went to a neighborhood food store, where the manager thought he knew the family and said he would contact them. Soon after, a young man showed up, kind of nervous. Awadh showed him the picture, and the young man pulled a similar one from his wallet and started to cry. It was Shihab's youngest brother, Arkan.

The family lives in an apartment behind a mechanic's garage in the city. And when we came to Baghdad, Awadh arranged for Arkan to come to our hotel. It was kind of an audition. He wanted to check us out.

When he arrives, Arkan is clearly nervous and edgy. He glances around the lobby of the upscale hotel at the passing businessmen, wonders if he's being watched. He's clearly worried about neighbors seeing Westerners visit the family home.

"I'm scared. I'm terrified about the situation," Arkan tells us.

Arkan is overcome with emotion hearing what actually happened when his brother was killed.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Arkan is overcome with emotion hearing what actually happened when his brother was killed.

Interpreters like Shihab are essential when American troops operate around the world. Not only do they help Marines and soldiers understand the language, they also help them avoid cultural mistakes, taboos. And they often can save American lives, telling them what neighborhoods to avoid or when to take extra precautions, maybe preventing a gun battle by soothing an angry tribal sheikh.

But there are still bitter sectarian divisions in Iraq and lingering anger at those who worked for the Americans. Arkan says the family has had to move a dozen times since Shihab died, fearful of neighbors, of rumors, of whispers that will force them to flee again.

Arkan said that as a teen he was badly beaten by militia members because of his brother's work. Some Iraqis see them as sell-outs, even traitors. That's why we're not using Shihab's surnames. Even today, his family is in danger because of his work with the Americans.

Arkan calls the next morning and tells us we can come to the family home to talk with him, his older sister, who is the matriarch of sorts, and a younger sister, Aliaà — but only after dark, when the mechanics who work in the attached auto shop have left. He tells us to keep a low profile.

A taxi travels on a wide street in central Baghdad.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
A taxi travels on a wide street in central Baghdad.

The neighborhood we're headed to is in southern Baghdad. Early in the war, it was pretty much a no-go zone — a mixed neighborhood of Sunni and Shia that descended into sectarian clashes. This area was once a launching zone for rockets fired toward the government buildings and embassies in what was called the Green Zone.

We slip into the auto repair shop. Arkan is there, smiling, and leads us through to the back, squeezing between a tool bench and a white car with its hood up. We walk out a back door and along a dimly lit walkway, to another building in the back of the garage. He invites us into a bright sitting room with whitewashed walls, high ceilings and couches set along three sides.

Aliaà (left) and Arkan look at photos of their brother Shihab when he worked as an interpreter during the Iraq War.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Aliaà (left) and Arkan look at photos of their brother Shihab when he worked as an interpreter during the Iraq War.

As we're settling in, and they bring cups of tea and trays of baklava, the older sister, Nidhal, is talking with Awadh. He's explaining why we're here, and they're becoming more and more animated.

Nidhal and Awadh talk back and forth in a flurry. Awadh finally tells us that Nidhal wants to know if her brother was killed by the Americans. We tell her yes, that's why we're here, that Shihab's death was all a mistake. She's shocked. Nidhal says Shihab's death caused them incredible hardship. She's had to work as a housekeeper and take care of sick people to make ends meet.

We tell them about the Marines who were killed, about the friendly fire incident, about how we spoke with the families of the dead, and how a widow of one of those dead Marines, Elena Zurheide, shared her copy of the investigative report. We tell them the American families were all lied to as well.

A man cycles past the school in Fallujah where a mortar was accidentally dropped in 2004,  killing two Marines and Shihab.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
A man cycles past the school in Fallujah where a mortar was accidentally dropped in 2004, killing two Marines and Shihab.

And we tell them how we tried for more than a year to get a name for Shihab, until we found the Army psychological operations soldiers who worked with him at the schoolhouse. We tell them how the soldiers told us that as they dressed Shihab's wounds, shortly before he lost consciousness, he spoke of his family and how proud he was of them.

Nidhal bows her head and sobs.

Nidhal tells us their mother died when the kids were little. Their father was an intelligence officer. But eventually, he became disillusioned with Saddam Hussein's regime and came under suspicion. She says he was assassinated by Iraqi agents in Dubai, leaving the children — four boys, two girls — all on their own.

In this family of orphans, the two eldest became like mom and dad, she says. Nidhal worked to help Shihab finish college — then he became the main breadwinner. After the invasion, he signed up as an interpreter for the Americans.

Nidhal, the eldest sister of Shihab's family, cries as she hears about how he was killed. Nidhal says Shihab's death caused them incredible hardship.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Nidhal, the eldest sister of Shihab's family, cries as she hears about how he was killed. Nidhal says Shihab's death caused them incredible hardship.

Nidhal tells us that when the Americans first arrived, they all loved them. Shihab would bring the family to the train station to see the U.S. soldiers.

Shihab did much for the family, they say. Arkan says Shihab taught him taekwondo and chess. He showed them woodworking and made them little toys. And he taught them all how to swim — he'd take the whole family down to the river.

The youngest, Aliaà, tells us Shihab insisted they all study. He had a small library and if they finished a book, he would reward them, let them watch cartoons on his computer or from a DVD.

The family desperately needed the money Shihab got as an interpreter, which Nidhal tells us was good money. He planned to buy the family a house one day.

Nidhal said the last time she saw him was in early April of 2004, shortly before he left for Fallujah.

"We stayed up late talking. But then, when he told me he was going to Fallujah, how the situation was escalating, an ominous feeling rose up," Nidhal says. "I told him this might be our last farewell. Three days after he went away, I had a dream. Shihab was there and he told me, 'They're sending me to Arizona.' And I asked him, 'Why Arizona?' And he told me, 'Because it's beautiful over there.'"

The day that American soldiers in armored vehicles arrived in their neighborhood looking for Shihab's family, the neighbors wouldn't say anything, fearful of talking with the Americans. But then a friend of Shihab's told them he was killed and they must retrieve his body from the morgue.

The family buried Shihab in the holy city of Najaf. Afterward, Nidhal and the oldest brother were asked to go to the Green Zone to meet with an American general. She doesn't remember his name but says he was heartbroken and started to tear up, telling them Shihab was killed by "terrorists."

An aerial view shows the Wadi Al-Salam cemetery, in Iraq's holy shrine city of Najaf, on Feb. 10.
Qassem al-Kaabi / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
An aerial view shows the Wadi Al-Salam cemetery, in Iraq's holy shrine city of Najaf, on Feb. 10.

The officer gave them Shihab's clothing and possessions, a certificate of appreciation for his service to the American military on behalf of Maj. Gen. James Mattis — then the Marines' ground commander in Iraq — and $9,000 in cash.

At that time, families of U.S. service members received a "death gratuity" of $100,000. And most got a $250,000 insurance payout.

Then Shihab's family members tell us something surprising, kind of tragic. Another of their brothers, Ammar, went to work for the Americans after Shihab was killed. He did it to avenge his brother. They say Ammar moved to the U.S. more than a decade ago. They think he's still working with the American military, but they haven't heard from him for two years.

We hand them a copy of the investigative report. Arkan can read English, but we had the summary translated to Arabic. We tell them, again, it was all a mistake.

Arkan becomes more and more angry, starts to yell in broken English. Why did the American officer say Shihab was killed by terrorists?

"Why he didn't tell the truth?" Arkan says. "Why he a liar to us? That I want to know. Why he's a liar to us."

We tell them the American families were lied to as well. The families of the dead Marines, Robert Zurheide and Brad Shuder, were initially told it was hostile fire, and heard rumors of friendly fire within weeks. And they learned the truth three years later after the Marines were called to Capitol Hill and were forced to tell the truth in congressional hearings.

Aliaà, Shihab's younger sister, looks at photos of him on her phone. She says when Shihab died, "we lost both spiritually and financially."
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Aliaà, Shihab's younger sister, looks at photos of him on her phone. She says when Shihab died, "we lost both spiritually and financially."

But Shihab's family has been living with a false story for nearly two decades. Nidhal tells us she always stood up for the Americans when Iraqis would speak badly about them. She said she had a deep faith that the American soldiers were more honorable than Saddam and Iraqi politicians, saying the Americans "rid us of so much agony and suffering."

"I felt that way right up until this moment," she says. "I was such a fool. I was so wrong."

We talk for a while longer, answer what we can. We're surprised when, despite all the anger and disappointment, Arkan tells us he still wishes he could move to the U.S. someday.

They ask if we have any advice for them, how they might approach the American government for more help, maybe a job for Aliaà or Arkan. Aliaà says when Shihab died, "we lost both spiritually and financially." We tell them that's a question for the American Embassy.

The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad wouldn't comment for this story, suggesting we reach out to officials who were at the embassy back in 2004.

Listen to Taking Cover, an NPR investigative series from the Embedded podcast, to learn more about the deadly 2004 friendly fire accident in Fallujah, Iraq.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.
Graham Smith is a Senior Producer on NPR's Investigations team and winner of the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for audio reporting. He works with staffers, station reporters and independent journalists to dig deep and create sound-rich, long-form stories and series.