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Heavy Reckoning in Qaim

“If the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make; when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a battle, shall join together at the latter day, and cry all ‘We died at such a place;’ some swearing, some crying for a surgeon …”

King Henry V
William Shakespeare

Shrouded in mystery and the usual secrecy that brands the Bush Administration, the June attack on a shepherd’s house in Qaim, Iraq, a few miles from the Syrian border, appears to have had a malleable, amoebic cause, if any. What matters from a human standpoint is that after U.S. missiles slammed into the house where people slept, a young woman named Hakima Khalil and her infant daughter lay dead.

The deaths of Hakima Khalil and her infant daughter, Maha, may be looked at as fuzzy numbers added to the unknown thousands of Iraqi civilians killed since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq began. OR, the young woman and her child may be stacked somewhere under the heading of “heavy reckoning.” Other family members escaped death by sleeping on cots outside to avoid the desert heat.

As of June 25, no one, to the best of my knowledge, can give a reason why Hakima and Maha had to die. There were missiles, then helicopters, some kind of skirmish with guards at the Syrian border, a convoy of people still unidentified, and the destruction of four more houses. According to first accounts, the U.S. believed the sons of Saddam to be in the convoy. Within hours, that rumor was amended to a statement that high level Iraqis had been the target. According to the Washington Post on June 24, the trucks, all bombed, seem to have been filled with smugglers.

Qaim, five miles from the Syrian border, is an area where sheep are often smuggled into Syria, where they fetch a better price.

Was the mightiest military on earth seeking sheep smugglers when the two-hour blitz on Qaim began? Or were Hakima and Maha, along with their home and their neighbors’ homes and the sheep that provided livelihood for the villagers, simply collateral damage from an attack on a convoy that MIGHT have included high level Baathists? U.S. officials originally assessed the attack as being on high level Iraqi officials, then backed away from that explanation. When pressed, Captain Aaron Barreda of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment is quoted as saying, “The bottom line is it’s an ongoing operation.” (according to Anthony Shadid of the Washington Post Foreign Service)

An ongoing operation to what purpose? Are we not asking the question loudly enough? Was it a part of this “ongoing operation” to bomb the villagers’ houses in the process of killing a four-vehicle convoy that MIGHT have held an unarmed, fleeing high level member of the now defunct Iraqi government?

Apparently, not even the villagers know the identity of all those killed (possibly murdered; we aren’t told if they were armed or not) in the four trucks. Word at the beginning was that DNA testing would be performed, suggesting that perhaps someone as noteworthy as Uday and Qusay Hussein might have been the victims. Now, the story about high level officials has quickly begun to die.

The account from the villagers varies. Most say the actual attack lasted about two hours but that helicopters continued to circle the village all night. Several villagers escaped death by running out of their houses before they were bombed. Two people who escaped the targeted convoy were identified by villagers as local smugglers. One victim was identified as Jumaa Abu Zaatir, a smuggler from the Abu Eissa tribe. There is no evidence, as far as I know, to indicate that Jumaa Abu Zaatir was a man posing danger to either the U.S. or the people of Iraq, though he is as dead now as if he posed a threat to the entire Mideast. His crime was smuggling a few sheep over the border.

Was the targeting of Jumaa Abu Zaatir of appropriate significance to cause the death of a young woman and her child. Is a local smuggler eligible for Rumsfeld’s next deck of playing cards?

As the story evolved from that told by witnesses, the focus began to shift to Syrian border guards wounded by the U.S. and then either taken into custody or taken in for medical treatment, depending on which news source is read.

One resident, Asfug Arrak, age 29, claims that U.S. helicopters continued to circle overhead for two full days after the attack and the killings. What was LEFT in this desert village to warrant such careful observation? Does the mystery even HAVE an answer?

Now, the bizarre tragedy has twisted itself into a tale of a border skirmish between the U.S. and Syrian border guards. Little is heard of the village houses and sheep demolished, the men killed in the convoy, or — as if they are the least of the attack — Hakima and Maha.

Today, June 25, Syria has officially protested to Washington over what the U.S. admits to be a military strike near the border (Inal Ersan, Reuters). Apparently, several Syrian border guards were wounded, though it is still not clear on which side of the border the damaging strikes were made. If the U.S. fired upon the guards within Syrian territory, is it simply a case of further international law being ignored? Law from which the U.S. is exempt? Does it matter anymore?

According to the Syrian Arab New Agency (SANA), Syria is demanding the return of its five soldiers seized after the U.S. special forces attacked the convoy of vehicles again being said to carry “aides of toppled Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.”

What we know is that the U.S. continues to hold five Syrian patrol guards as they treat three of them for wounds sustained in the attack. What we know is that Syria wants their men returned.

It’s hard to make a cohesive story of these scattered facts, given the great discrepancy between U.S. focus and the villagers’ focus. Who WAS killed in the convoy? Will this uncertainty lead us to raise the level of debate on pre-emptive strike theories? When there is a possibility that a black-hatted guy MAY be in the marketplace does the marketplace become fair game for a cluster bomb?

Eventually these questions will have to be answered. Somewhere, someone wants to know whether there were dangerous terrorists in the convoy or whether they were, as claimed by the villagers, sheep smugglers.

Is the U.S. military to be recorded as failing to capture Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, Mullah Omar, and the sons of Saddam while succeeding with overkill in getting sheep smugglers?

Lying sprawled among these questions are the bodies of a young woman and her child. One American soldier gets killed by a sniper’s bullet and it causes a stir of sorrow and anger. It makes the news. Two young people lie dead in the desert, and their names are not duly noted.

Hakima Khalil and Maha Hakima Khalil and Maha Hakima Khalil and Maha

Will George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld remember their names this time next week? Do they even know their names tonight? Will these two names scratch their way across a conscience, across a blunder of an attack that probably caught sheep smugglers instead of terrorists?

Hakima was twenty years old; Maha was one year old; May they be remembered as human beings who enjoyed a total of twenty-one years on earth, Insha Allah. A heavy reckoning, “if the cause be not good.”

LISA WALSH THOMAS is a lifelong writer and human rights activist. Her second book, “The Girl with Yellow Flowers in Her Hair,” is now available through Pitchfork Publishing. Lisa can be reached at: saavedra1979@yahoo.com

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