Akhmad Mehedi

Akhmad Mehedi says his father was glad Hussein fell. Americans say Mehedi Ali Jassem helped their attackers. (Sun photo by Douglas Birch / June 17, 2003)

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 raid

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."