The Death of Abeer in Iraq—What We Know Now
| May 19, 2009
Four U.S. soldiers have been tried and convicted in military court for the March 12, 2006 assault and murder of Abeer al-Janabi and her family. Now, in the federal court trial of the last man accused, former Pvt. 1st Class Steven Green, information has surfaced that explains more fully what happened that day. This is the first of a two-part report on the Paducah, Kentucky trial.
It is possible that the dying Muslim girl Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi won what was in her mind the last and the main battle? Abeer, only 14, faced alone three U.S. soldiers who were intent on raping her, with a fourth nearby. As all have testified, Pvt. 1st Class Jesse Spielman stood by during the attack. Tall and strong from work in her family’s subsistence garden, she fought hard, sobbing, screaming, struggling, as three men in succession pried her legs apart and got between them. Brett Barrouquere, Associated Press [AP], reports that Specialist Promotable Paul Cortez and Specialist James Barker testified that they failed to get erections. The defense attorney for Pvt. 1st Class Steven Green, facing the death penalty, questioned whether his client penetrated. To Abeer, fighting with all her strength to hold them off, those facts would have mattered.
It does not make the attacks less heinous. Afterward, Green put a pillow on her face and shot her in the head. Soaking her in acrid-smelling flammable liquids, they lit her and fed the fire with blankets thrown onto her body, leaving her in a pool of charred debris. Green is in Paducah, Kentucky, federal court awaiting sentencing for the crimes in Iraq by a panel of nine women and three men, the first civilian jury to try a U.S. soldier for actions during military service. The judging of Green, the last of the five perpetrators to stand trial for the murder of the civilian Iraqi al-Janabi family, is a triumph of a remarkably complex federal legal system, a small, determined group of reporters, including those from the Women’s Media Center who since 2006 have worked to keep Abeer in the world’s mind, and of bloggers throughout the world with the same intention.
The trial however re-opened that story in unexpected ways. Green was the lone shooter who murdered the entire family, so the previous trials of others involved focused exclusively on the gang-rape and arson leaving Green’s actions vague. In his Paducah trial, details about Green and his victims—Abeer and her sister Hadeel, their parents Qassim and Fakhriya—have suddenly swum into view.
The information cleaves through many urban myths about the case. An authoritative rendering will be available in six months, a book by Jim Frederick of Time Magazine. Until then, documents, recent trial testimony, Frederick’s encyclopedic knowledge of the case (It’s Yusufiyah, not Mamoudiyah….Cortez was not a sergeant, His papers had not gone through: he was a specialist promotable.”) and insight from Barrouquere who’s been on the case for three years can clear up more than a few points. Neither, however, is responsible for anything I may have misconstrued.
Living with her family in a farmhouse outside the isolated hamlet of Yusufiyah, 25 k [15.5 m] southwest of Baghdad, Abeer at 14 was not strikingly beautiful, just a very tall teenager who sometimes breathed with difficulty because of asthma. As lanky as a colt, with big dark eyes, she was covered head-to-toe when she went out and stayed home when her two younger brothers went to school each day. Abeer’s Sunni parents had wanted her to learn, to be “free.” But since the U.S. invasion and the breakout of civil war, it was dangerous for girls to be in school—or anywhere. She was afraid to pass the soldiers at the U.S. Army checkpoint near her house because they leered and flirted. The same soldiers watched her as she worked in the field and had even barged in through the door, poking through the house, checking for weapons. One had run his index finger down the side of her face, terrifying her.
Legally armed with an AK-47, Abeer’s father Qassim perhaps believed that he could protect his daughter. Certainly he did not think that the U.S. occupation soldiers would go any farther than harassment because, he was heard to say, Abeer was so young. Consequently the family turned down the offer of an empty house farther from the checkpoint. Nevertheless, Fakhriya went to her husband’s relatives, arranging for Abeer to spend nights with them. Neither parent thought that their sons—Muhammed, 13, Ahmed, 10—or six-year-old Hadeel were in any danger.
The soldiers’ 101st Airborne Division, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade, Bravo Company, 1st Platoon staffed two traffic checkpoints and checked the area roads for improvised explosive devices—homemade bombs. It was suicidal duty for young troops who wanted to live. Constantly assaulted by incoming rounds, they endured the fear, rage and anguish of touching comrades who had just been blown to bits. Green had saved a sergeant under fire, throwing him onto the hood of a speeding jeep, and used his own body to hold him there, only to feel him die under him. An Iraqi whom they had regarded as a friend had walked up to a member of Green’s company and, while shaking hands with the soldier, knifed him in the throat, killing him. They felt like sitting ducks.
Andrew Tilghman, a correspondent for Stars and Stripes, by chance interviewed Green after he had been in Iraq for four months, a month before the al-Janabi killings. He later described Green in the Washington Postas hospitable, friendly, thrill-seeking, at ease with both Americans and Iraqis. Also candid, Green said what Tilghman already knew many other soldiers felt: “I came over here because I wanted to kill people…I mean, I thought killing somebody would be this life-changing experience. And then I did it…I mean, you kill somebody and it's like 'All right, let's go get some pizza.'…I just want to go home alive. I don't give a [expletive] about the whole Iraq thing. I don't care….See, this war is different from all the ones that our fathers and grandfathers fought. Those wars were for something. This war is for nothing."
Lt. Col. Karen Marrs testified that in 2006 she found his depleted, demoralized Bravo Company “combat incapable” and first platoon its weakest unit. A colonel had been alerted that Green was dangerously unstable, but nothing had been done beyond giving him sleeping pills—in a company that was allowed only four hours of sleep a night.
In the military trials of the other perpetrators, Green was named as the ringleader, but more probably that was Barker, who suggested they target the al-Jabani family because it had only one man and one assault weapon. As Barker testified, his main aim had been to rape Abeer and kill the witnesses. He had made deals to accomplish it, involving Green by letting him be the trigger man, getting Cortez by promising that he could rape Abeer first.
While Abeer slept in safety at an uncle’s house, the soldiers planned the crimes over canned Iraqi Army whiskey, playing golf. They opted to attack the parents and girls in broad daylight after the al-Janabi boys had left for school. Pvt. 1st Class Bryan Howard remained at the checkpoint, covering the radio, as a lookout. Spielman remained in uniform, but Green, Cortez and Barker put on dark Army-issue long underwear, which they saw as ninja clothes. Splitting into pairs and using wirecutters to get through a neighboring fence, they came at the house on two sides from the rear, capturing first little Hadeel with her dad in the garden, then Abeer and her mother in the kitchen. As Green herded Hadeel and her parents into the bedroom, where he killed them, in the front room Cortez and Barker battered and sexually assaulted Abeer. Green killed Abeer as he had killed little Hadeel, with their father’s captured AK-47. Then the men set fire to both Abeer’s body and anything flammable—not being made of wood, the house itself was not burning—in order to hide the evidence. Changing their clothes, they threw the Ak-47 in a canal and went back to the checkpoint as though nothing had happened.
It was March 12, 2006. The boys Muhammed and Ahmed came home from school to find white smoke billowing from their house, blood and brains on the walls. In the front room, Abeer was half nude and had been shot in the head. In the bedroom, bullet holes and red splatters peppered a corner. The right side of Qassim’s head had been blown out by a shotgun, and he lay in a thick pool of blood. The body of Fakhriya looked broken. Little Hadeel had been killed, still clutching the stems of flowers from the garden, with a bullet through her right cheek. The boys stood outside the smoking building, holding hands and crying. Later they dropped out of school, “lost their futures.”
Relatives at first thought insurgents had been responsible for the all this and ran to a U.S. checkpoint for help. “Investigating,” Sergeant Anthony Yribe aided Cortez in suppressing evidence. Cortez, one of the men who had battered, assaulted and burned Abeer, threw up violently on entering the room where Green had shot Hadeel and her parents. Barker by contrast was having himself a barbecue of chicken wings. Steven Green was exultant, bouncing on his Army cot shouting, “That was awesome!”
Barrouquere, who has followed the case for three years, notes that Green seemed at first to be high then to come down hard. He confessed to Sergeant Yribe that night, taking full responsibility, not even mentioning the parts played by the other four.
Yribe reacted to defend the unit. Not reporting Green’s confession to his superiors, he engineered for him an honorable discharge with “antisocial personality disorder,” swiftly getting Green out of Iraq. The others involved remained mum. The story came out because that June, two 101st Airborne soldiers innocent of the al-Janabi crimes were kidnapped, tortured and beheaded. In the belief that their treatment was revenge for the murders, a soldier who had heard Green talk blurted out the story to an Army counselor. The Army Criminal Investigations Division arrested those perpetrators still in the military and contacted the FBI, which took Green into custody in North Carolina. Green had turned into skin and bones, so gaunt that Barrouquere, who saw him in July of that year, wondered if he would make it. When first arrested, the soldiers did not even know the al-Janabis’ names.
Now the world does.