''I saw the heads of my two little girls come off''
Date: Wednesday, April 02 @ 19:42:10 UTC
The Sydney Morning Herald
An Iraqi mother in a van fired on by US soldiers says she saw her two young daughters decapitated in the incident that also killed her son and eight other members of her family.
The children's father, who was also in the van, said US soldiers fired on them as they fled towards a checkpoint because they thought a leaflet dropped by US helicopters told them to "be safe", and they believed that meant getting out of their village to Karbala.
Bakhat Hassan - who lost his daughters, aged two and five, his three-year-old son, his parents, two older brothers, their wives and two nieces aged 12 and 15, in the incident - said US soldiers at an earlier checkpoint had waved them through.
As they approached another checkpoint 40km south of Karbala, they waved again at the American soldiers.
"We were thinking these Americans want us to be safe," Hassan said through an Army translator at a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital set up at a vast Army support camp near Najaf.
The soldiers didn't wave back. They fired.
"I saw the heads of my two little girls come off," Hassan's heavily pregnant wife, Lamea, 36, said numbly.
She repeated herself in a flat, even voice: "My girls - I watched their heads come off their bodies. My son is dead."
US officials originally gave the death toll from the incident as seven, but reporters at the scene placed it at 10. And Bakhat Hassan terrible toll was 11 members of his family.
Hassan's father died at the Army hospital later.
US officials said the soldiers at an Army checkpoint who opened fire were following orders not to let vehicles approach checkpoints.
On Saturday, a suicide bomber had killed four US soldiers outside Najaf.
Details emerging from interviews with survivors of yesterday's incident tell a distressing tale of a family fleeing towards what they thought would be safety, tragically misunderstanding instructions.
Hassan's father, in his 60s, wore his best clothes for the trip through the American lines: a pinstriped suit.
"To look American," Hassan said.
An Army report written last night cited "a miscommunication with civilians" as the cause of the incident.
Hassan, his wife and another of his brothers are in intensive care at the MASH unit.
Another brother, sister-in-law and a seven-year-old child were released to bury the dead.
The Shi'ite family of 17 was packed into a 1974 Land Rover, so crowded that Bakhat, 35, was outside on the rear bumper hanging on to the back door.
Everyone else was piled on one another's laps in three sets of seats.
They were fleeing their farm town southeast of Karbala, where US attack helicopters had fired missiles and rockets the day before.
Helicopters also had dropped leaflets on the town: a drawing of a family sitting at a table eating and smiling with a message written in Arabic.
Sergeant 1st Class Stephen Furbush, an Army intelligence analyst, said the message read: "To be safe, stay put."
But Hassan said he and his father thought it just said: "Be safe".
To them, that meant getting away from the helicopters firing rockets and missiles.
His father drove. They planned to go to Karbala. They stopped at an Army checkpoint on the northbound road near Sahara, about 40km south of Karbala, and were told to go on, Hassan said.
But "the Iraqi family misunderstood" what the soldiers were saying, Furbush said.
A few kilometres later, a Bradley Fighting Vehicle came into view. The family waved as it came closer. The soldiers opened fire.
Hassan remembers an Army medic at the scene of the killings speaking Arabic.
"He told us it was a mistake and the soldiers were sorry," Hassan said.
"They believed it was a van of suicide bombers," Furbush said.
Hassan, his wife, his father and a brother were airlifted to the MASH unit.
Three doctors and three nurses worked on the father for four hours but he died despite their efforts.
Today, Hassan and his wife remain at the unit. He has staples in his head. She has a mangled hand and shrapnel in her face and shoulder.
Major Scott McDannold, an anaesthesiologist, said Hassan's brother, lying nearby, wouldn't make it. He is on a respirator with a broken neck.
On March 16, Hassan and his family began to harvest tomatoes, cucumbers, scallions and eggplant. It was a healthy crop, and they expected a good year.
"We had hope," he said. "But then you Americans came to bring us democracy and our hope ended."
Lamea is nine months pregnant.
"It would be better not to have the baby," she said.
"Our lives are over."