Saturday, November 20, 2004

Civilians: For One Family in Falluja, a Simple Drive Turns Deadly

Civilians: For One Family in Falluja, a Simple Drive Turns Deadly:
"I forgot all my pain when I saw the condition of the mosque," Ms. Abdullah said. "I saw the Americans sitting on boxes full of Korans, and at that moment I wanted to grab one of them and kill him. I would have preferred to stay in the car bleeding rather than witness that scene."

"The Americans may have been sympathetic to me," she said, "but they slaughtered other people."

"The drive was supposed to take no more than 15 minutes, a quick dash across a few rubble-strewn blocks of Falluja to spirit Sahar Muhammad Abdullah, 23, and her family to safety in a house near a mosque.

But hundreds of feet short of their destination, the family stumbled into a company of marines who had transformed the mosque into a temporary fortress, with snipers and machine gunners perched on the roof. They spotted the gray car carrying the family, inching along.

A barrage of bullets followed. Minutes later, Ms. Abdullah's mother lay bloodied and dying in the rear seat, glass shards strewn about her. Ms. Abdullah, hit in the back by a bullet, collapsed into her mother's lap. Three men in the car were lightly wounded.

The family's journey ended there, and a much longer one began.

"There are days when I can't sleep at all," Ms. Abdullah said from a hospital bed in Baghdad. "I keep thinking of what happened to us." Her family has not yet told her that her mother is dead."

What befell Ms. Abdullah and her family on Nov. 12 is just one incident in which civilians were reported wounded or killed during the week-long Falluja offensive. While no neutral group has been able to enter the city to count casualties, officials of the International Red Cross in Baghdad estimate that as many as 800 civilians may have died.

Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, commander of the First Marine Expeditionary Force, said Thursday that he did not know of any civilian deaths.

The marines at the mosque, from Company B, First Battalion, Eighth Marines, had spent the morning of Nov. 12 fending off insurgent attacks, and they were operating under rules of engagement that said "unauthorized movement of civilian vehicles towards Marines may pose" a suicide bomb threat. The same rules tell marines to "spare civilians and civilian property, if possible."

Ms. Abdullah's family was not aware that American troops had stormed the Abdul Aziz Mosque, just blocks from their home in the Nazal neighborhood, and that battles were raging all around, she said.

"We were used to the bombing," Ms. Abdullah said. "But then we thought, 'If we're injured, who would treat us?' So we decided to move to a place where people could attend to us if that happened."

That meant driving to the house of Mr. Khalif, a few blocks away.

The family knew the Iraqi government had imposed a curfew on the city. Anyone moving in the streets could be shot. But they saw only mujahedeen outside, not Americans. Besides, "we thought if we get hit, we'll be martyrs," Ms. Abdullah said.

On Nov. 12, at 2:30 p.m., the five packed clothes and bags of food and piled into the car. The uncle drove. The neighbor, Mr. Latif, rode in the passenger seat holding a white towel out the window, Ms. Abdullah said. Gunfire rattled nearby, then died down.

"We had no idea what had happened to the blocks of houses next to us," Ms. Abdullah said. "We thought, 'We've never seen anything like this.' The car could barely move because of the debris in the streets."

They rounded a corner by the mosque and saw the marines for the first time, crouching atop the roof, their guns pointed outward. Tanks had rammed through the mosque compound's outer wall, leaving large holes.

Mr. Khalif veered onto the street where he lived. The marines opened fire, Ms. Abdullah said. "I fell into my mother's lap and started screaming," she said.
con·cept: Civilians: For One Family in Falluja, a Simple Drive Turns Deadly