DULUIHYA, Iraq - Sometime after midnight June 9, in this farming community on the east bank of the Tigris River, someone or something struck retired high school teacher Mehedi Ali Jassem in the face.
Jassem then walked through his open front gate into the street and died.
Just who or what caused his death is a mystery. It's not a puzzle on the scale of the fate of the dictator Saddam Hussein or the location of Iraq's suspected chemical and biological weapons. But it is an important mystery, nonetheless.
His death seriously damaged American efforts to win the support of Iraqis in this town, 30 miles north of Baghdad. It has helped plant doubts in the minds of some who once welcomed U.S. troops. And it demonstrates how carefully the soldiers must tread, even as they battle elusive Iraqi fighters who have killed scores of Americans in the past two months.
Mourners gathered under a line of tents on a leafy front lawn Saturday, sitting in rows of white plastic seats facing one another, sipping tea and accepting the murmured condolences of visitors.
Jassem was a local elder of the Jabouri, one of the largest and most powerful Sunni Muslim tribes in Iraq. Some members held high government posts, while others were known for their opposition to Hussein.
His eyes shining with grief, Jassem's son Akhmad Mehedi led a visitor to a quiet veranda, where he recalled the arrival of thousands of American troops in his family's neighborhood shortly after midnight June 9.
Mehedi, a 26-year-old former government lawyer from Baghdad, did not see what happened. But he thinks he knows. Every night, his father would take a bed out on the porch to sleep. The night the Americans arrived, his father heard a noise and went to the gate. A soldier must have followed him back to the porch and hit him in the face with the butt of a rifle.
"He was lying on the blanket and bleeding to death," Mehedi said. He pointed to his father's mattress, which had a dinner plate-size bloodstain at one end.
Members of Jassem's family insist they are not angry.
"We welcomed the Americans," Mehedi said. "We thought they would bring freedom and justice to this country. But it was a very big shock to us. We've seen only bad things from them."
Many of the most prominent members of the Jabouri tribe live in an enclave south of Duluihya named for them - al Jabour, occupying a milelong peninsula created by a loop in the Tigris as it flows sluggishly through lush farms and orchards.
For weeks after the war, this well-to-do area was ignored by American troops. But soldiers frequently came under fire in towns nearby. Iraqi fighters ambushed American convoys rolling along the main road between Baghdad and Mosul, lined by palm trees and eucalyptus and pink oleander.
Ten American soldiers were killed in the area in the two weeks preceding June 9, most of them victims of Iraqi fighters firing automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades. Scores were wounded. In one incident, a girl tossed a hand grenade into a Humvee.
As they hunted for the culprits, U.S. military officials say, they began to hear about al Jabour.
The headquarters of the 173rd Airborne Brigade is situated at a former Iraqi military airfield near Kirkuk, more than three hours north of Baghdad. Maj. Michael Fenzel, a 1989 graduate of the Johns Hopkins University, helped lead a battalion. Sitting in a deserted briefing room, he explained the background of the raid on Jassem's house.
Intelligence sources, he said, identified al Jabour as a haven used by Iraqi fighters targeting U.S. soldiers, and a center for organizing the attacks. Baath Party officials, including Hussein's personal bodyguard, had been spotted in the neighborhood after the fall of Baghdad on April 9, Fenzel said. The Americans decided to flood the area with troops in what was called Operation Peninsula Strike.
"There was tremendous anti-American sentiment in the area," Fenzel said. "There was no question the operation was going to be heavy-handed."
More than 4,000 troops surrounded al Jabour, arriving in an armada of Humvees, armored vehicles, 20 boats and 10 helicopters. An F-15 fighter and four heavily armed AH-4 Apache helicopters zoomed overhead. One of the goals of the raid, Fenzel said, was the capture of Jassem, who had been accused by intelligence sources of having helped "facilitate the movement" of fighters attacking American forces.
"His role in the Baath Party went far beyond teaching school," Fenzel said.
He did not elaborate on the role Jassem allegedly played in attacks, but other U.S. officials have said that die-hard Baath officials are hiring Iraqis to attack American targets and trying to jump-start a popular resistance movement.
Capt. Eric Baus of the 173rd Airborne, who led the raid on Jassem's neighborhood, joined Fenzel in the briefing room. Using a notepad, he drew maps of the neighborhood and diagrams of the tightly choreographed movement of his soldiers.
On the night of the raid, he said, the power was cut to al Jabour, plunging the neighborhood into darkness. The raiders, wearing night-vision goggles, arrived in a Humvee in front of Jassem's house, which sits near the end of a dirt road leading to the river. Their first target, though, was the house next door.
If Jassem was sleeping on the porch, he could have clearly heard, and may have seen, Baus' men stop out front. His front wall is only about 5 feet high. There is no doubt that he heard the bang of the explosive used to blow open his neighbor's gate and another seconds later as the raiders forced open the neighbor's front door.
First Sgt. Timothy Watson was ordered to stick by the Humvee, to make sure no one was able to escape. Minutes after the first explosion, he said, the broad metal gate to Jassem's courtyard yawned open and a man walked out.
"I didn't know anything about it," the man told the soldiers in perfect English. "I didn't do it."
It was Jassem. In the green glow of Watson's night-vision goggles, he did not appear injured.
"He did not stagger out," Watson said. "He walked out."
At no time, the sergeant added, did anyone strike Jassem.
"Not only did we not beat him, he was very cooperative," Watson said.
Jassem was led to the side of the Humvee away from the road, so he would not be hit if there was shooting, and sat down, Watson said.
Baus' team broke into a number of homes and rounded up scores of residents, tying their hands behind their backs. At one point, Baus walked back to the Humvee. One of Baus' men checked Jassem.
"Hey, sir," he said, "I don't think this guy is breathing."
A disturbing mystery
Jassem was not the only Jabouri tribesman to die that night.
During the raid, Baus' men arrested Jassem's brother-in-law, Jassem Rumyad, 52, who owned orchards and a bakery. He also was a Baath loyalist, according to a relative.
"He had very close relations with Saddam's regime," said a cousin, who declined to give his name. "He served as an officer in one of Saddam Hussein's security forces."
After soldiers raided his house, Rumyad suffered a heart attack. He died while two 173rd Airborne medics were trying to resuscitate him.
Jassem's death was not so easily explained. The soldiers said they saw little blood.
"I saw the wound on his head," Baus said. "We agreed there was no way that kind of injury could have caused his death so quickly, or at all."
Neither did anyone remember Jassem lying on a mattress.
The soldiers wondered whether Jassem had been standing near his neighbor's front gate when it was blown open. But a 5-foot wall divides the properties.
"If he had tried to hop over the wall, our guys would have seen him," Baus said.
Watson said a relative told him Jassem had heart disease, so they thought he might have suffered a heart attack.
What caused the head injury?
"I wish I knew," Baus said. "It's one of those things that rides on your conscience. It was weird as hell."
Dr. Fryad Dhari, a cousin of both men who died, welcomed a group of visitors to the front porch of his home and served apricot juice from his own groves.
Jassem, he said, had suffered a skull fracture on the left side, just above the jaw joint.
"There was bleeding in his nose, mouth and eyes. He had cuts on his face," the doctor said. On the death certificate, he described the cause of death as "heavy force to the head."
There was no way to tell, he said, whether the injuries had been accidental or were intentionally inflicted. No X-rays were taken, and the family would not approve autopsies.
Did Jassem suffer from heart disease?
"He was a healthy man," the physician replied.
He ridiculed the notion that Jassem was a Baathist.
"Mehedi all his life refused to be a member of the Baath Party," he said. "We know all the members of the Baath Party here. When the American army entered Iraq, he said: 'With them, we can get rid of this system, Saddam's system. We should be friends with them.'"
Abed Ali, Jassem's brother and next-door neighbor, was host for a lunch yesterday for sheiks of the Jabouri tribe from every part of Iraq, including Mosul, Samara and Basra.
The traditional seven days of mourning was coming to a close. The men ate lamb and rice in heaping bowls, set out on Ali's covered porch. The Tigris slithered its lazy way southward.
"All the Jabouris were against Saddam Hussein," said Ali. His brother Jassem, he said, had once been headmaster at the secondary school where he taught. Several years ago he was told that he had to join the Baath Party to remain in that post but refused.
Ali said he, himself, had served as a general in the Iraqi army until the regime collapsed April 9. But he insisted that he, too, had opposed it - pointing out that he had worked at a relatively insignificant office job at a salary of $50 a month.
Before Operation Peninsula Strike was over, more than 400 people had been detained. Most were quickly released. But among those apprehended, U.S. military officials said, were 70 members of the Saddam Fedayeen militia and several Baath Party figures.
Fenzel said the level of violence in the Duluihya area seems to have declined during the past week, suggesting that the raids did some good.
But that is small comfort to Jassem's family or to other members of the Jabouri tribe. Ali is worried.
The Americans, he said, are listening to paid informants, who tell them what they want to hear. There could be false arrests, more innocent lives sacrificed, more orphaned children.
"They could make another mistake," he said, "because they don't know the truth."
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