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A teacher's accidental death illustrates the fight to earn the Iraqis' trust.



Published: Sat, June 18, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



A teacher's accidental death illustrates the fight to earn the Iraqis' trust.

KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Farqad Mohammed Khinaisar was driving to work in her dark green Kia Sephia at 8 a.m. on May 29 when she came up behind three American humvees that were about to enter a traffic circle in Baghdad's Sadiya neighborhood.

A high school Arabic teacher, she'd left home five minutes earlier, and she was 15 minutes from work. In the American convoy were soldiers from the 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment of the 3rd Infantry Division, based at Fort Stewart, Ga. They were out on a ride-around to get to know the community.

The 3rd Infantry had been in the country since February and had lost two soldiers a month earlier to a car bombing in an adjoining neighborhood. There had been three car bombs in three weeks in Sadiya. The prospect of another attack was "at the forefront of everyone's mind," said Lt. Col. David Funk, the battalion commander.

The usual crowd was gathered at the traffic circle -- the shepherd and his 20 sheep, the kabob shop owner, the drivers waiting for someone to rent one of their trucks.

Everyone heard a gunshot from the third humvee. The soldiers at the rear of the convoy thought they saw a suicide bomber, said Funk, and they'd fired a warning shot, then kept firing. The Iraqi men in the circle said they looked up and saw only a frightened woman in a careening car.

No one knows what Khinaisar saw or thought. She was shot once in the head, and she died five days later, on June 3. She spoke only once during that period, when her husband arrived at the hospital. When she heard him speak, she quietly called out his name: Mohsen.

In the car, the soldiers found only a purse and a Quran on the dashboard. They found no evidence that the 57-year-old teacher was a suicide bomber.

Fog of war

It's not clear how often American soldiers, strangers in a strange land where it's virtually impossible to distinguish friend from foe, mistakenly kill Iraqi civilians. U.S. officials say they keep no statistics, and since last year, the Iraqi Ministry of Health has refused to release the ones it keeps.

At the Iraqi Assistance Center, which pays families for damage caused by American forces, the head of the compensation section said the center receives 1,000 requests a month, but most of them are for property damage. The head of the center, Col. Chester Wernicki of the 353rd Civil Affairs Command from Staten Island, N.Y., said he doesn't keep information on how many claims have been filed for deaths.

Many Iraqis say they understand why U.S. forces must be here: to keep the country intact, protect its fragile new government and stop the violence.

However, enough civilians have been killed in one-sided encounters with scared American troops that Baghdadis cower whenever Americans are near. Whenever American troops leave their bases, they say, everyone is vulnerable.

"We are living in constant terror because of these convoys," Khinaisar's husband, Mohsen Hameed, said at his wife's funeral.

Others think the shooting of innocent people is a reflection of the Americans' nervousness and their lack of intelligence about the insurgency.

"People are frustrated. So far, neither the government nor the multinational forces have proven that they can handle the security issues, and it is worrying the citizens," said Huda al-Nuami, a political science professor at al-Mustansiriya University. "There is a sense of distrust between the people and the security apparatus."

Funk, who wasn't present when his soldiers shot Khinaisar, defended his troops. Soldiers must decide who's a suicide bomber in a split second, and mistakes "tear us up."

"I truly honestly believe that, in the balance, we do so much good here," Funk said. This shooting "does not define our presence."

One fatal mistake, however, can undo a lot of good work.

One mistaken choice

Khinaisar's car jumped the curb and came to rest against a utility pole. A crowd quickly gathered. Witnesses said the Americans were standing to one side, talking about what to do. Funk said they were waiting for an ambulance.

One of the truck drivers standing in the circle, Raid Sabri, 38, said he saw Khinaisar's hand and leg move. He told the Americans that if they wouldn't take her to the hospital, he would. They agreed to let him take her, he said.

"We were furious after seeing them not rescue her while she was still alive. To them, killing a human being is nothing," Sabri said. "When an American soldier gets killed, they make a big fuss. Helicopters and ambulances come to rescue, but when an Iraqi gets killed in the street, it means nothing to them."

Funk said the ambulance was en route. Even his bleeding soldiers have had to wait for long periods for help, he said.

Sabri, his boss, Ibrahim Abdullah, 64, and the other men lifted Khinaisar into the back of Sabri's white Datsun pickup. They took her to the closest hospital, Yarmouk, where records show that witnesses brought her in. She was immediately transferred to Al-Kadimiya Hospital, the best place for head injuries, according to those records.




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