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Shooting Ali in the Back



If you want to know why the U.S. campaign to pacify Iraq and make the country into a docile puppet state is doomed to failure, just look at what happened to 17-year-old Ali Muhsin.

Shot and killed by American soldiers on Tuesday, he died on his family’s front stoop as neighbors gathered around, and frightened American soldiers pointed their guns at anyone who got too close.

According to Iraqis, including several who worked with the boy at a tire repair shop, Ali Muhsin was simply a kid in the wrong place at the wrong time, who, because of the color of the shirt he was wearing, was mistaken for someone who had just dropped two hand grenades onto a U.S. military patrol.

But even the account given in the New York Times on Aug. 27 by American troops involved in the incident raises serious questions about just what is going on in Iraq. According to those troops, a U.S. soldier, Sergeant Ray Vejar, saw something dropped from the street above as his Humvee approached a tunnel. Vejar didn’t recognize the dropped object as a grenade until it exploded near him, but he did claim to have seen two men overhead on the street–one dressed in white and one in green, the latter of whom had “moved toward the railing.”

Vejar says when his team raced up onto the street after exiting the tunnel, to pursue their attackers, they saw two figures in white and green start running. He says the man in green stopped and turned. “He looked right at me and I positively ID’d him as the guy who was at the railing,” he says. Such a positive ID sounds surprising, considering that earlier, Vejar says he couldn’t even tell what was being dropped, and surely was more focussed on what was dropping, than on the face of whoever it was up on the street.

In any event, what happened next is particularly troubling.

Vejar says he and another soldier chased the fleeing man in green into an alley. But it was another group of soldiers in a Humvee who found Ali (who of course may or may not have been the same man Vejar was chasing).

When Ali tried to flee the Humvee, the soldier manning that vehicle’s powerful mounted machine gun fired a warning shot, causing him to stop. As a soldier from the Humvee approached the boy, he tried to flee again. This time, the machine gunner shot him, hitting him several times.

Ali managed to stagger two blocks to his family’s home before collapsing on the front stoop, where he died slowly.

It was at that point that Sgt. Vehar arrived, pushed his way through the gathering crowd (which included the boy’s wailing mother), and identified him, saying “I know he was at the railing.”

Okay. If this account is correct (and the boy’s neighbors say it is not–claiming that in fact he had been working at his job when the grenade was dropped, and had only gone out to see what the commotion was), we have to ask what kind of rules were being followed when the soldier in the Humvee decided to shoot an unarmed fleeing boy in the back.

If this was rules of war, then perhaps it could be justified. Nasty perhaps, but a fleeing combatant can be shot in wartime. But is this a war or an occupation? In a war, the very outcome of the conflict is in question, making it perhaps necessary to shoot first and ask questions later. But at the point that, as our Commander-in-Chief claims, “major conflict is over,” and the outcome of the battle has been determined, such wild west behavior is no longer called for.

If what we have now in Iraq is an occupation, the occupier has to be a lot more restrained and careful about who gets terminated with extreme prejudice. An unarmed person fleeing a military patrol cannot automatically be presumed to be an enemy combatant. Fleeing a group of soldiers might be the logical and understandable–even if foolish–response of many innocent people. It is not a mistake for which anyone should be executed. And clearly the soldiers in the Humvee, including the one who fired the fatal shots that executed Ali, were not the ones who claimed to recognize him. They were purely guessing he was the one. It was only Sgt. Vehar, who was not on the scene at the time of the shooting, who claims he could identify the boy.

Bad enough that another young person, combatant or not, has died in this American war of aggression. Worse yet that it may have been an innocent lad who was shot and killed.

But even from the point of view of American policy makers, this incident must be viewed as indicative of a disaster in the making.

Consider the situation in the U.S. We have a functioning Constitution, a set of laws and courts, and a whole bunch of legally constituted law enforcement agencies. Yet even with all the protections that are in place, our police all too often kill unarmed and innocent people in the heat of action. How much worse then in a country where there are no laws, are no courts to control the people doing the enforcing, and where those enforcers are not people who are trained in law enforcement, but rather are soldiers, trained in the art of killing.

Unless the Pentagon and Iraq viceroy Paul Bremer set a clear policy instructing occupying troops that they are not to shoot unarmed citizens–even those who are fleeing–the inevitable slaughter of innocents will produce a groundswell of hatred and blood vengeance within Iraq that will engulf occupying American soldiers, and eventually lead to the defeat of any efforts to create a new society and government in that benighted land.

Dave Lindorff is the author of Killing Time: an Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. A collection of Lindorff’s stories can be found here:


Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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