MIAMI – Surviving members of a family whose van was fired on by troops in Iraq said they were traveling toward allied lines because they thought an air-dropped leaflet had advised them to flee for safety.
In a report published Wednesday in the Miami Herald and other Knight Ridder newspapers, Bakhat Hassan said American soldiers had waved his family’s car through a checkpoint as they left their village Monday. But at the next checkpoint, the soldiers fired.
“We were thinking these Americans want us to be safe,” Hassan, 35, said through a translator.
Hassan, interviewed Tuesday by a Knight Ridder correspondent at the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital near Najaf, said 11 members of his family were killed in the incident — his daughters, aged 2 and 5, his son, 3, his parents, two older brothers, their wives and two nieces, ages 12 and 15. His wife, Lamea, who is nine-months pregnant, said she saw her children die.
“I saw the heads of my two little girls come off,” said Lamea Hassan, 36. “My girls — I watched their heads come off their bodies. My son is dead.”
U.S. officials originally said seven were killed; reporters at the scene placed the death toll at 10. Hassan’s father later died at the Army hospital. A brother who is being treated there may not survive, a doctor said.
Another brother, a sister-in-law and a 7-year-old child were released to bury the dead.
The soldiers who fired on the family were following orders not to let vehicles approach checkpoints, U.S. officials said. Troops in the area were on edge after an Iraqi army officer posing as a taxi driver killed four soldiers in a suicide attack Saturday.
The Hassans decided to make the journey after an American helicopter dropped fliers over their farming village that showed a drawing of a family sitting at a table, eating and smiling, with a message written in Arabic.
Sgt. 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.
“A miscommunication with civilians,” said an Army report written Monday night.
The family of 17 packed into its 1974 Land Rover. Hassan’s father drove. In his 60s, he wore his best clothes for the trip through the American lines: a pinstriped suit.
“To look American,” Hassan said.
They planned to go to Karbala. They stopped at an Army checkpoint on the northbound road near Sahara, about 25 miles 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 miles 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 and his wife were lying in cots next to each other in the green Army hospital tent. He had staples in his head. She had a mangled hand and shrapnel in her face and shoulder.
“It would be better not to have the baby,” Lamea Hassan said. “Our lives are over.”