What Happened to Zeidun?

Dispatches From Iraq

What Happened to Zeidun?

Dispatches From Iraq

What Happened to Zeidun?
Notes from different corners of the world.
Jan. 28 2004 12:47 PM

Dispatches From Iraq

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SAMARRA, IRAQ—On the night of Jan. 3, Marwan and Zeidun, two cousins, drove a small white flatbed truck carrying ceramic floor tiles and toilets into Samarra. The truck had broken down on the way, and they were late. The curfew that day was 11 p.m., and the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps manning the checkpoint into town waved them through probably just before 11. Inside the town, close to the famous spiral minaret, they were stopped by an American patrol as curfew violators.

What happened next is disputed. But two things are clear: The truck they were driving was destroyed, and the two cousins went off a bridge into the Tigris and one of them drowned.

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Samarra is not a happy liberation success story. Col. Frederick Rudesheim, tall, fit, and strong-jawed, as an American colonel should be, commands 4,200 soldiers of the 3rd Combat Brigade of the 4th Infantry and is responsible for operations in Samarra. He has been wrestling with it since last May. He sat and talked to me in his office-billet at Camp Anaconda, a sprawling old Iraqi air force base an hour out of Baghdad. He tried to explain the dynamic of a city that has seen some of the bloodiest resistance activity, a place that has also always historically hated neighboring Tikrit and Saddam's exalted patronage of it. Black banners commemorating recent "resistance martyrs" are hung next to graffiti: "We will kill the Americans wherever they go!" and "End the Occupation of the Americans and Tikritis!" The Americans go about scrawling curlicues over the graffiti so it cannot be read and then writing "USA Good."

"Samarra is mercurial," said the colonel. "Samarra is power struggles within power struggles, people vying for control, wanting to establish power bases. … It has its highs and lows. Yesterday, I drove through it and people were waving, it was prosperous and bustling, and I thought, man, this feels good." And then later during our conversation he admitted, "I get very frustrated … jaded even." Mortar attacks against the U.S. garrison in the former Baath Party headquarters in Samarra happen almost every day. The incidents are nasty: In the early summer the Americans returned fire at gunshots issuing from a wedding party and killed two or three people; in November the resistance mounted a three-pronged ambush of two U.S. convoys bringing new money to the banks; and at the end of January a car bomb blew up in the car park in front of the courthouse, killing four Iraqis and injuring almost 40. Samarra represents Arab pride against imposed force, an intractable Us and Them, a Sunni Triangle flashpoint.

The colonel spends time talking to local leaders, city councilors, police officers, officers of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, sheiks, and imams, listening. "I have come around," he says. "I can listen to an hour of translated diatribe. I can suck it up. … Perceptions turn slowly."

The two cousins who went into the river come from a large local family—a family of uncles old, educated, venerable, and formidable. One was minister of information before Saddam. Another, Nezar Fadhil al Samurrai, is a lawyer who spent 20 years in an Iranian POW prison. We sat in the family's reception room, glasses of tea arriving along with relatives, until about 15 of them were sitting and explaining to me, "There was one survivor, hamdullah (thanks be to God). God wanted this story to be told. If they had both died, we would not know what happened."

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Marwan told me his story with a mixture of misery and diffidence. On the table in front of us was a photograph of him and Zeidun. They were inside a car, and Marwan, big and chubby, was laughing at something with his mouth open and his eyes merrily screwed up. The man in front of me had a different face altogether.

"They just stopped us and put us in their car. It was five minutes before curfew. Usually, missing curfew just means detention for a short time. We didn't feel strange, we had no weapons, they had just checked us. We had no idea why we were being taken."

He says they were driven to the edge of the bridge.

"We pleaded. We said we didn't know how to swim. My cousin tried to hold onto one of the soldiers. He was just laughing as he pushed him in. Two of them were pointing rifles at his forehead and chest. Four of them pushed me off toward the dam, toward the current. I only had my nose and mouth sticking out of the water. I could see the Americans standing there, pointing their guns. They wanted us to die, but I survived to testify against them. My mind was in chaos, but I remember I was very concerned about my cousin. We shouted back and forth to each other. I did as much as I could, but it was God's will. I tried to swim to him. I got hold of his hand, but he slipped away in the current. Everything moved so fast, I don't know how long I was in the river. From the shock I didn't even feel the cold."

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Nezar, the lawyer, wore a navy blue three-piece suit, a blue tie, and large steel-framed glasses. He spoke for the family. He told me, as he had told Lt. Col. Gonzalez, commander of the nearest forward base, Silo, "The son of our blood cannot be compensated for."

I asked him what the family wanted. "Justice according to the laws of America and the Geneva Convention. I am a lawyer, and we don't want to go through this process as a means of revenge, but for justice."

Zeidun's father was quieter. He said he felt bitter about the American occupation even before the death of his son. "The way they treat people on the street, the way they break down shops. They come at night and put dynamite under the doors and go into the houses. They are trying to provoke people. Even those not with the resistance will join the resistance."

Zeidun's mother sat with the women in another room. They wore black abayas and sat on floor mats with their backs resting against the wall in sullen, bitter remembrance.

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"He was a decent boy, my son. He was stable, 19 years old, in the 12th grade. He wanted to be a businessman. He was brave and wise for his years. He had just started working. He was supposed to get married—"

Sura, the fiancee and cousin, sat in the corner. A young woman with a wide moonish face, pretty enough.

"A mother's feeling cannot be expressed. There is one thing I want to ask: Does Bush know what his soldiers are doing in Iraq? Do they want to free us from our sons? Did they think he had a mother?"

Marwan took me to the place where it had happened, and I was surprised. I had imagined them being thrown from the middle of the high bridge that spans the Tigris on the road into Samarra. The river there is wide and deep and the drop is 50 feet or more—it is the most dramatically obvious place. Instead, Marwan stopped the car at the edge of a smaller road bridge built along the top of a low dam. The dam is operated by metal plates that are pulled up and down to regulate water flow. The place he showed me was at the side of the bridge. In order to reach the edge, you had to walk between and around a couple of concrete barrier blocks, part of the construction of the bridge. A curve of riverbank formed a small quiet bay next to the first gates of the dam. It was probably a mere five feet to the water. Pushing someone in here would be like pushing someone into a swimming pool; there was no drop to speak of. On the morning I saw it, the closest dam gate was only open a few inches, the flow of water was slight and made only a small eddying impression on the surface of the water. The river was brown and muddy. Farther down the dam-bridge, some gates were pulled several feet open, and I could see that the rush of current pulling undertow was strong. The surface was mobile but looked sluggish and solid. In one place, a mash of dried reed stalks were caught in a black oil slick.

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Zeidun's body was missing for 12 days. They searched as far away as Fallujah, but it was finally found half a mile downstream, so it seemed clear he had been sucked under the dam.

There are always two sides to a story in Iraq and a big gap in the middle.

Col. Rudesheim met me after a long weary day in Tikrit. He took off his helmet, went through the nightly officer's briefing, sat at his desk, and ate a plate of chow without noticing much what it was.

We discussed the disconnect between Iraqis and American soldiers. He took the time to talk me through the policies of nighttime raids, patrols, pushing forward, pulling back, trying to get the balance right, bolstering the police, and supporting the ICDC. The need to rely on better intelligence—"I think we're mostly using more than one source now"—to pick up the right people, to release the right people. He explained the bloody incidents in Samarra over the past occupation months: the wedding party in May ("We paid compensation; I don't think we did anything wrong"), the resistance battle in November when the Americans said they had killed 46 resistance members and people in Samarra said they had killed nine civilians.

I asked him the obvious question, the one Iraqis always ask me: "Why not just pull out and leave, remove yourselves as targets?"

"Because there has to be law and order in that city," he told me. "You cannot allow it. You cannot just have a city that fires at you with impunity. It can't be allowed to stand." Then he softened a little. "I have to accept we're not going to win the hearts and minds immediately. But then again, I need to win minds, to have them be reasonable and understand. I have always said that success will be when the Iraqis are in charge."

When he had finished eating supper, we talked about the bridge incident. His gaze was clear and direct. "I have done my own investigation and reached my own conclusions," he told me. He had talked to Marwan, the ICDC witnesses, and the platoon involved. "I am absolutely satisfied that our soldiers did not do anything improper."

Because he is a thorough man and the incident has caused bad feeling in Samarra, where he had worked hard to ease tension and violence and resentment, he ordered a separate Criminal Investigation Division investigation that would form its own conclusions.

For the moment the colonel believes what the soldiers in the platoon told him: The two Iraqis were picked up for a curfew violation. They were taken to the police station for detention, but the police station was closed, so they were taken to the bridge. The platoon commander, a lieutenant, told him the intention was to drop them off there so they would have to walk back, and that the last thing they saw was the two of them standing facing each other talking, alive on the end of the dam-bridge.

I slept at Anaconda overnight—or failed to sleep, listening to the thrum of the generator and armored rumblings. I wrote up my notes and tried to read and found myself lying in the dark with the thoughts overturning in my head, switched on a flashlight, and scrawled notes to myself to remember to ask the colonel in the morning: What about the smashed truck? I had seen a photograph of it, the middle section had a huge crushed dip in it as though it had been run over by something heavy like a tank. Why did the platoon drop them off so they could walk back home after curfew and violate the curfew?

The colonel told me he just didn't know how the truck got smashed up. He agreed that dropping them off so they could walk home wasn't the greatest idea; really they should have been taken to the nearest forward base at Silo for overnight detention, but they were the last patrol so …

The commander of the ICDC in Samarra, Col. Assan Assaji, a full-of-himself, frank, and dynamic former tank commander in the Republican Guard, nodded his head when I told him my theory: The American patrol pushed the two cousins into the river—without any murderous intent—because they couldn't be bothered to detain them and then ran over their truck with a Bradley. "You have the right idea," he told me, unable, unwilling, to give anything else away. He told me the ICDC guards manning their checkpoint only about 300 meters from the edge of the bridge said they heard screaming and ran over as they saw the American patrol driving off. They helped Marwan out of the river, but they could not find his cousin.

Marwan has been deposed for four hours by the CID team. The two sides of the story will both be investigated by the CID of the U.S. Army, and the subsequent report and its conclusions will be acted on, or not, by the unit's commander. Like many incidents between Iraqi civilians and U.S. soldiers, this one continues to be "under investigation."