The blackest hearts: War crimes in Iraq?
On 12 March 2006, Abu Muhammad heard a knock on his door. He lived in a village just outside Yusufiyah, 20 miles south of Baghdad, and warily he headed towards the window ? since the invasion, you never knew who it might be. It was a neighbour of his cousin and her husband, who lived in a nearby hamlet. "You must come," the man said. "Something has happened at your cousin's house, something terrible."
Pulling into the driveway, Abu Muhammad saw his cousin's 11- and nine-year-old boys wailing. They had just returned home from school. Smoke was billowing from one of the windows.
Abu Muhammad circled the house, looking in the windows. His cousin Fakhriah, her husband Qassim and their six-year-old daughter Hadeel had all been shot. Their daughter Abeer, 14, was naked from the waist down. Her body was still smoking; her entire upper torso had been scorched, much of it burnt down to ash. Her chest and face were gone.
"Come," Abu Muhammad said to the boys. "Come with me." He dropped them with his wife and drove to a nearby traffic control point, TCP1.
Staff Sergeant Chaz Allen was in charge of TCP1 that day. He sent Sergeant Tony Yribe to check it out. At just 22, Yribe looked like an action hero and was on his second tour in Iraq. As usual, he noted, there were not enough men to mount a proper patrol. Ideally, they shouldn't be manoeuvring with less than a squad, nine or 10 men. But that almost never happened. Here in the so-called Triangle of Death, three-, four- and five-man patrols were standard. Allen told him to pick up two men on his way, from TCP2. "And be sure to bring a camera. Battalion is going to want pictures."
It was late afternoon. 1st Platoon, Bravo Company, and all of 1st Battalion of the 502nd Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, had been in theatre for nearly six months. The same to go. It felt like an eternity ? with an eternity yet to come.
Yribe arrived at TCP2. Specialist Paul Cortez and Private First Class Jesse Spielman were ready to go. At 23, Cortez was acting squad leader, a job many thought beyond him. He had a reputation as an immature loudmouth with a nasty streak, and he was in charge of a motley group of six soldiers down at TCP2, some of whom had been on their own at this spartan, unfortified outpost for 12 days straight. They were pretty ragged and strung out.
Specialist James Barker, 23, was next in seniority, a soldier renowned for being a smart aleck and mischief-maker. Spielman, 21, was quiet and unassuming; Private First Class Steven Green, also 21, never stopped talking.
Some Iraqi army soldiers were already at the house. It was grisly. Yribe started taking pictures and directed the other soldiers to look for evidence, but Cortez started dry heaving. He looked green and pale, and was drenched with sweat.
"Jesus, just go outside," Yribe told Cortez. Spielman was cool and efficient, but the burnt girl's remains were so disgusting they just left her where she was. As the men moved a mattress, something small and green skittered across the ground. It was a spent shotgun shell. That's odd, Yribe thought, Iraqis don't really use shotguns.
In mid-2006, three years after the toppling of Saddam's regime, the 330 square mile region south of Baghdad that encompassed the Triangle of Death had become one of the deadliest locales in the country. It was a battleground of the incipient civil war between Sunnis and Shias, and a way station for terrorists of every allegiance, ferrying men, weapons and money into the capital.
Just two years later, the region had been effectively pacified, patrolled by 30,000 men (including Iraqi forces) who experienced about two attacks a week. Back then, however, it was occupied by just 1,000 US soldiers, who coped with more than 100 attacks each week against them and Iraqi civilians. With far fewer troops and resources than they needed, the 1-502nd Infantry Regiment ? a light battalion of around 700 men ? was flung out there with orders, essentially, to save the day. During their year-long deployment, 21 men were killed, with scores more wounded badly enough to be evacuated home. Seven of those who died came from the same group of around 35 men: 1st Platoon.
In December 2005, Staff Sergeant Travis Nelson and Sergeant Kenith Casica of 1st Platoon were shot dead at TCP2 by a lone Iraqi who had given them information in the past. "That's when things started to turn," says Staff Sergeant Chris Payne, leader of 1st Platoon's 2nd Squad. A few days later, two more men of 1st Platoon were killed by an IED (improvised explosive device).
The feeling that death was certain was becoming pervasive in 1st Platoon, and spreading like a panic. More and more men started to believe they simply weren't going home. Some say drinking was becoming fairly common. There were plenty of interpreters who were happy to procure bottles of whiskey or gin, or even pills or hash, for any soldier who wanted them.
Green was reacting particularly badly. He had always been a loudmouth, racist and misogynist. An evaluation form filled out by the Combat Stress team around that time is a horror show of ailments and dysfunctions. Green told them he was a victim of mental and physical childhood abuse by his mother and brother, he was an adolescent drug and alcohol abuser, and had been arrested several times. Now, he said, he was having suicidal and homicidal thoughts. One entry states, "Interests: None other than killing Iraqis."
By this point, extreme hatred of Iraqis had become common in the platoon and was openly discussed. They became more aggressive: suspects were beaten, house searches got more violent, drinking became more open and was not limited to the ranks. The men were at a far lower ebb than even those meant to monitor them realised.
During patrols, Green often volunteered to kill. "I was always saying, 'Any time you all are ready, you all are the ones in charge of me. Any time you all say the word, 'Go', it's on," he recalled.
Just after 4pm on 5 March, 21-year-old Specialist Ethan Biggers was shot in the head. He had been the entire company's little brother; he and his fiancee were expecting their first child.
On 12 March, Green was pulling pre-dawn guard in the gun truck at TCP2. He'd been up for 18 hours. "When I'm on guard next time," he told Cortez and Barker, "I'm going to waste a bunch of dudes in a car. And we'll just say they were running the TCP."
"Don't do that!" Cortez said. "Don't do it while I'm here. I'm supposed to be running this shit."
Barker agreed. "I've got a better idea," he said. "We've all killed Hadjis, but I've been here twice and I still never fucked one of these bitches."
Cortez's interest was piqued. They talked about it semi-seriously, as they did other things throughout the rest of the morning.
Barker had already picked the target. There was a house, not far away, where there was only one male and three females during the day ? a husband, wife and two daughters. One was young, but the other was pretty hot, at least for a Hadji chick. Witnesses were a problem, though; they knew they couldn't leave anyone alive. Barker asked Green if he was willing to take care of that, even if women and kids were involved. "Absolutely," Green said. "It don't make any difference to me."
They refined their plan and, over several hours, went back and forth on whether or not to do it. Barker was pushing hard, and Green was game, but finally Cortez said, "No, fuck it, this is crazy. Fuck this. There is no way we are doing this shit."
At around noon, with a new wave of boredom taking hold, the three of them, with Spielman, sat down outside to play Uno and drink whiskey. The men got drunker and drunker, and eventually Cortez declared, "Fuck it, we are going to do this." He outlined the mission and divvied up the duty assignments just like a legitimate patrol. He and Barker would take the girl, Green would kill the rest of the family, Spielman would pull guard and 18-year-old Private First Class Bryan Howard, a recent arrival, would stay back and man the radio.
Spielman, who had not heard of the plan until then, did not bat an eye. "I'd be down with that."
Cortez went out to the truck to check on Private Seth Scheller, who was the only one on guard. Scheller was also new.
Cortez briefed Howard. He said they knew of an Iraqi girl who lived nearby, and they were going to go and fuck her. To Howard, it was the most insane thing he'd ever heard. He didn't believe it, nor that they were leaving him and Scheller alone. Cortez gave him the radio and told him to call if any patrols or Humvees came through. The men, armed and disguised, headed out the back of the TCP.
Qassim Hamzah Rashid al-Janabi was not from the Yusufiyah area. After the 1991 Gulf war, when UN sanctions made life even tougher, he and his wife Fakhriah had moved to be closer to her family and to look for work. A daughter, Abeer, was born in August 1991; soon after came two sons, Muhammad and Ahmed, and another daughter, Hadeel.
When the US invaded, local people were hopeful, but soon the area began to fall apart from neglect and violence. The locals felt persecuted. The US patrols were brutish. Qassim's brother-in-law was gunned down in cold blood by the Americans in Iskandariyah in early 2005, said his sister. Other family members got hauled off to jail for no reason, with no indication of when they'd come home.
Fakhriah was particularly worried about Abeer. Now 14, her fragile beauty was attracting a lot of unwanted attention. Soldiers would give her the thumbs up and say, "Very good, very nice." By early March, the harassment was getting so bad that Abu Muhammad told the family to leave Abeer with him; there were more people at his house and it was less secluded. But Abeer stayed there only one night, on 9 or 10 March. With his protection, Qassim assured Abu Muhammad, they'd be fine.
Sneaking up on the house, the soldiers corralled the whole family into the bedroom. After they had recovered the family's AK-47 and Green had confirmed it was locked and loaded, Barker and Cortez left, yanking Abeer behind them. Spielman set up guard in the doorway between the foyer and living room, while Cortez shoved Abeer into the living room, pushed her down, and Barker pinned her outstretched arms down with his knees.
In the bedroom, Green was losing control of his prisoners. The woman made a run for the door. Green shot her once in the back and she fell to the floor. The man became unhinged. Green turned his own AK on him and pulled the trigger. It jammed. Panicking, as the man advanced on him, Green switched to his shotgun. The first shot blasted the top of the man's head off. Then Green turned to the little girl, who was running for a corner. This time the AK worked. He raised the rifle and shot Hadeel in the back of the head. She fell to the ground.
Spielman came in, saw the carnage and was furious. Green explained the AK had jammed and Spielman began searching for shotgun casings.
As Green was executing the family, Cortez finished raping Abeer and switched positions with Barker. Green came out of the bedroom and announced to Barker and Cortez, "They're all dead. I killed them all." Cortez held Abeer down and Green raped her. Then Cortez pushed a pillow over her face, still pinning her arms with his knees. Green grabbed the AK, pointed the gun at the pillow, and fired one shot, killing Abeer.
The men were becoming extremely frenzied and agitated now. Barker brought a kerosene lamp he had found in the kitchen and dumped the contents on Abeer. Spielman handed a lighter to either Barker or Cortez, who lit the flame. Spielman went to the bedroom and found some blankets to throw on the body to stoke the fire.
The four men ran back the way they had come. When they arrived at the TCP, they were out of breath, manic, animated. They began talking rapid-fire about how great that was, how well done. They all agreed that was awesome, that was cool.
Several hours later, Yribe was still mulling over what he had seen. You don't see a lot of girls that little murdered in Iraq, he thought to himself. And the burning of the other girl's body ? that was strange, too: burning was a huge desecration. Then there was the shotgun shell. The shotgun is almost exclusively an American weapon.
As Yribe approached TCP2 to drop off Spielman and Cortez, Green was waiting in the street. He pulled Yribe aside. "I did that shit," he said.
"What?" Yribe said.
"I killed them," Green repeated. Barker was standing next to Green, but didn't say a word.
Caught off guard, Yribe dismissed it as more of Green's crazy talk. It was insane. How could a scrawny guy slip away from a TCP by himself in the middle of the day and rape and murder a family? But Green kept insisting. Yribe told him to shut up, he didn't have time for his bullshit right now.
The next day, Cortez went to Yribe in tears. He said he was so shaken up by what he had seen in the house, he needed to go to Combat Stress.
While Yribe covered for Cortez, he found Green. He'd been thinking over what Green had told him the day before and it was bothering him. "Now," he demanded, "tell me everything, every detail."
Green started to talk. Again, Barker was there and, again, he did not say a word. The thing that really convinced Yribe was not what Green was saying but how he was saying it. Ordinarily, Green was manic and boastful. Right now, however, Green was serious, sober, matter-of-fact.
When Green was finished, Yribe told him, "I am done with you. You are dead to me. You get yourself out of this army, or I will get you out myself."
Yribe decided not to say anything and, as there were no witnesses, the bodies had been removed so quickly and so many soldiers had tramped over the house, there was no usable physical evidence beyond a few AK-47 shell casings. Without conclusive evidence, it was instantly a cold case, like tens of thousands of murders in Iraq that year.
On 20 March, Green went to Combat Stress and, over a few days, was diagnosed with a pre-existing antisocial personality disorder, a condition marked by indifference to the suffering of others, habitual lying and disregard for the safety of self or others. The diagnosis carried immediate expulsion from the army. Back in the US, on 16 May, he was honourably discharged and returned to society.
On 16 June, three more of 1st Platoon's men ? Private First Class Thomas Tucker, Specialist David Babineau and Private First Class Kristian Menchaca were attacked on guard. Babineau was killed, the others captured. Three days later they were found, murdered, burnt and mutilated. When Yribe heard, he lost it. "It drives me crazy," he said to Private First Class Justin Watt, "that all the good men die and the shitbag murderers like Green are home eating hamburgers."
"Murderers?" Watt asked.
Yribe told Watt about the day at the checkpoint and how Green had confessed to him. Watt couldn't believe what he was hearing, and didn't believe Green could have acted alone. "Just forget I said anything," Yribe said. But Watt couldn't forget. He began obsessively mulling it over.
Around lunchtime on 19 June, Watt ran into Howard and Private First Class Justin Cross. As they were talking, Watt remembered both guys had been a part of the group at TCP2 that day back in March. They discussed all the messed-up stuff they had seen, and Watt brought up the girl who got burnt. Convinced Watt knew the whole story, Howard filled in many of the missing pieces.
That night, Watt recounted it all to Yribe, but again he said he didn't see what good was going to come from digging it up. For a while, Watt did try to forget. But he kept coming back to the father. He imagined the powerlessness, the impotence, of having armed men break into your house and there being nothing you could do to protect your family. Watt ran it over in his mind again and again. He resolved that he couldn't just let this pass.
On 23 June, Watt spoke to his immediate superiors. Over the next two days, the matter reached the highest levels. The soldiers involved were interviewed and, with varying degrees of vehemence and evasiveness, each claimed to have no knowledge of the crime. But over the next five days, and over multiple interrogation sessions, Barker, Cortez and Spielman all broke down and confessed, corroborating Howard's narrative, though each resisted fully implicating himself.
The US army paid the Janabi family $30,000 for the murders of Qassim, Fakhriah, Abeer and Hadeel. Nine months into a year-long deployment, 1st Platoon's war was effectively over.
Back in the US, Green was arrested by the FBI. The crime was making news, and al-Qaida was exploiting the outrage for maximum propaganda. On 10 July, the Mujahideen Shura Council issued a five-minute video showing the mutilated corpses of Tucker and Menchaca. Its audio includes clips of Osama bin Laden's and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's speeches, as well as the message that the video was being presented as "revenge for our sister who was dishonoured by a soldier of the same brigade".
Although there was virtually no usable forensic evidence, the army's cases against Barker and Cortez were particularly strong, based on their confessions, and both offered to plead guilty to conspiracy to commit rape and murder and other charges if the army agreed not to pursue the death penalty. The army accepted, and sentenced Barker and Cortez to 90 years and 100 years at the military's maximum security prison. They will be eligible for parole in 20 and 10 years respectively.
In March 2007, Howard pleaded guilty to conspiracy to obstruct justice and being an accessory after the fact. He was sentenced to 27 months in prison, and was released on parole after 17.
Spielman's lawyers claimed he did not know where the rogue patrol was going on 12 March and, once at the house, was too surprised and scared to do anything about it. A military panel did not believe these claims of innocence, found him guilty of all charges and sentenced him to life in prison. His sentence was later reduced to 90 years; he, too, will be eligible for parole after 10 years.
Because Green had been discharged, his case proved to be much more complicated. The Justice Department announced it was pursuing the death penalty, making him the first former service member ever to face the possibility of execution in a civilian court for his conduct during war. His defence team twice offered to have him plead guilty if the government would take the death penalty off the table; twice the Justice Department declined. To this day, his defence attorney maintains that this was a politically motivated appeasement to the Iraqi government and public opinion. His attorneys also tried several times to have Green reinducted into the army and tried by court martial. The army declined the offers.
After ruling out an insanity defence, Green's attorneys decided their best hope was to focus on the horrible conditions under which Bravo worked, Green's abysmal upbringing, the leadership failures that plagued every level of the 1-502nd and the warning signs of his murderous obsessions that his superiors routinely ignored. During several dramatic weeks of testimony, the defence ran a trial within a trial against the army's negligence in allowing the atrocity to happen, while prosecutors emphasised the heinousness of Green's behaviour.
The jury of nine women and three men found Green guilty of all counts of conspiracy, rape and murder, but hung, six against six, on the issue of whether to sentence him to death, triggering an automatic sentence of life in prison without parole.
Relatives of the murdered family, including Abu Muhammad, had testified during the trial, and afterwards were allowed to address the court. Abu Muhammad spoke last, praising his slain family members and criticising the jury's reluctance to execute Green. He concluded by turning to Green and saying, "Abeer will follow you and chase you in your nightmares. May God damn you."
Then Green was given the opportunity to make his first public statement. He addressed the family, saying, "I am truly sorry for what I did in Iraq and for the pain my actions, and the actions of my co-defendants, have caused you and your family? I helped to destroy a family and end the lives of four fellow human beings, and I wish that I could take that back, but I cannot? I know if I live one more year or 50 more years that they will be years that Fakhriah, Qassim, Abeer and Hadeel won't have. And even though I did not learn their names until long after their deaths, they are never far from my mind? I know I have done evil, and I fear the wrath of the Lord will come upon me. But I hope you and your family at least can find some comfort in God's justice."
Green is currently serving five consecutive life sentences with no possibility of parole
The Guardian, "The blackest hearts: War crimes in Iraq", 24 July 2010.
"The Insider" mailing list article, 26 July 2010.