Remembering Abeer: Anatomy of a War Crime
In 2006, WMC began a media campaign to ensure that the girl who fell victim to a heinous U.S. war crime in Iraq would not be forgotten. Here, the writer of previous WMC Exclusives about the case describes new information from a recent book by Time magazine’s Jim Frederick.
The 2006 rape and murder of 14-year-old Abeer Al-Janabi serves as a case history for Jim Frederick in Black Hearts: One Platoon’s Descent into Madness in Iraq’s Triangle of Death. Frederick focuses on the role played by clumsy and cruel U.S. battalion leadership, lack of rest due to understaffing and the military’s failure to treat or filter out unstable personalities. The story of the killing of Abeer along with her mother, father, and younger sister grows in importance as military suicides, domestic violence and other evidence of U.S. troop instability skyrocket.
The book provides new information and corrections of past reports, including details of Abeer’s family life:
- The al-Janabi home was in Iraq’s Triangle of Death south of Baghdad, surrounded by jihadi (fundamentalists from other Middle Eastern nations), American soldiers who seemed even more foreign and the genocidal civil war between local Sunni and Shi’a. Mined with Improvised Explosive Devices, the region in 2006 was so dangerous that U.S. military contractors would not enter it.
- Abeer’s parents, Qassim and Fakhriah al-Janabi, were married cousins who by working as sharecroppers had secured a small house on five acres of land with grape, pomegranate and date orchards and vegetable fields, on the outskirts of Yusufiyah. Their dream was to give their two daughters and two sons college educations. The additional dream of Abeer, their high-spirited, asthmatic firstborn, was of finding a wealthy husband and living in Baghdad, the big city. An aunt quoted by Frederick said that Abeer at 14 was “proud of being young.”
- Though hidden by an abaya, Abeer was tall for her age, with “gentle features,” a small mouth, and large, dark, liquid eyes—seen as “hot” by Americans. U.S. troops called out “‘Very Good. Very Nice,’” and her brothers watched one soldier “run his finger down a terrified Abeer’s cheek.” By early March 2006, “the harassment was getting so bad” that her mother’s relatives took Abeer into their house. Her father Qassim, a former factory guard who was legally armed with an AK-47, felt capable of protecting his daughter and brought her home a few days before the murders.
- Private First Class Steven Green was the triggerman, but not the ringleader of the attack. At a traffic control point near the al-Janabi house, Green on March 12th decided to “waste” a random car full of Iraqis. Specialist James Barker instead suggested raping a girl, saying that he had “never fucked one of these bitches.” With Barker choosing Abeer and Green easily agreeing to kill the family thus eliminating witnesses, Specialist Paul Cortez hesitated only briefly. Having recently passed his exams for sergeant (creating his “right” to be the first to rape her), Cortez “outlined the mission and divvied up the duty assignments just like a legit patrol.” Ordered to “pull guard,” Specialist Jessie Spielman was drawn into the crime plan. Private First Class Bryan Howard was told to stay at the checkpoint on radio, as the other four men headed for the al-Janabi house.
- In a bright pink dress, six-year old Hadeel, holding some just-picked, edible sweetgrass, was standing with Qassim in the driveway and Abeer was helping Fakhriah in the kitchen when the soldiers suddenly appeared and herded them into the bedroom. Drastically understrength in the area, U.S. soldiers routinely terrorized Iraqis through often brutal surprise raids—and in the process learned the layout of each house, who lived in it, where they kept weapons and when they were usually home. Barker found Qassim’s AK-47, handed it to Green and left the parents and Hadeel trapped by Green, with Spielman guarding the doors, without resistance.
- As Abeer was yanked into the living room though, both parents started frantically shouting, and as Abeer screamed, Fakhriah turned and ran toward her. Green shot Fakhriah in the back with Qassim’s AK-47. “Unhinged” by the murder of his wife and Abeer’s screams and cries, an unarmed Qassim moved toward Green, who with a shotgun “blew the top of his head off,” shooting Qassim twice more in the chest. Green shot tiny Hadeel (“spinning away from him, running for a corner”) in the back of the head. First participating in the gang rape, Green then killed Abeer. Spielman fondled the breast of her corpse, then they soaked her in kerosene from a lamp and lit her, piling on fuel. When they left, Green “opened the valve on the propane tank in the kitchen” to blow up the house. The soldiers ran back to the checkpoint, where they talked about “how great that was.”
- A relative discovered Abeer on the day of the killings, her upper torso reduced to ash. “Her face and chest were gone” and “only the tips of her fingers [were] recognizably human,” but her naked kerosene-soaked lower body was unburned, her legs “spread and, rigid in death, still bent at the knees.” Seizing a teapot, the man jogged back and forth from the canal, dousing her.
- Green voluntarily confessed twice to Sergeant Anthony Yribe, but Yribe covered up the crime. Immediately and honorably discharged, Green drove around the United States for three months, drunk and stoned, with an AK-47 and a pistol on the seat beside him.
- With jihadi, Sunni and Shi’a all killing each other and the constant findings of Saddam-era mass graves, Americans were not suspected. Months afterward, Al Qaeda in Iraq claimed responsibility for the torture and beheadings of the platoon’s soldiers but made no mention of the al-Janabis. It was only after several soldiers began to talk, and the Associated Press broke the story, that Al Qaeda said that those beheadings had been revenge for “our little sister Abeer.”
- Iraqis were told to trust U.S. justice. Military trials in 2006 and 2007 sentenced Cortez, Spielman and Barker to prison “for 90-100 years,” but with possible parole in 2016. In a Kentucky federal court, for the first time in U.S. history, civilians tried a former soldier for actions in war. Convicted, Green got life without parole. In the Louisville sentencing hearing, enraged because the killer Green had not gotten death, Abeer’s grandmother had to be “wrestled to the floor by six court officials” to prevent her attacking him.
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