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Sunday, January 18, 2015

When an American Sniper Shot Knight-Ridder Journalist in Iraq

As American Sniper soars to a record weekend box office--and Twitter filled with posts about Chris Kyle as true American hero and Iraqis as dead scum (see critiques of the movie)--I thought it might be valuable to post here a story I wrote for my old magazine, Editor & Publisher, on July 28, 2005, the latest in a series of pieces on this episode.  It was later included in my book on the media failures on the war.   More than 15 other journalists were also killed by U.S. forces. 

I should note that this book--along with dozens of my columns back then--make clear that 1) tens of thousands (if not more) Iraqi civilians were killed by U.S. forces in the first eight years of the war and payments often made to the families of victims (don't miss my story on that here) I was one of the first American writers to focus on U.S. soldier and veteran suicides and PTSD.

And an update on the below: The sniper was later IDed as Staff Sgt. Joe Romero, who shortly after the shooting was arrested for possession and sale of drugs and sent to military prison.  NPR did a full probe in 2006.   McClatchey, which took over Knight-Ridder, did this followup in 2008 on the sniper, noting his troubled past--despite being widely hailed as a great soldier.  Just days before the shooting,  he threatened to kill a fellow soldier.

July 28, 2005

One of the most remarkable stories of the Iraq war appears today at the online magazine Salon, written by its longtime foreign correspondent Phillip Robertson. Amazingly, he managed this month to track down the American sniper who apparently shot and killed Knight Ridder correspondent Yasser Salihee, 33, on June 24. The article, "The Victim and the Killer," chronicles this search, and lengthy exchanges between Robertson and the sniper, described only as "Joe."

E&P has covered the Salihee incident from the start, first with a news report, then a moving tribute to him written by Knight Ridder's Baghdad chief Hannah Allam, which drew wide reader response. Salihee, a physican who had worked for KR for more than a year, was accidentally shot, on his day off, while driving his car in what seemed like a haphazard manner, wrongly suspected by American soldiers of being a suicide bomber.

Robertson, who had met Salihee, decided to search for the unidentified sniper himself. This seemed like a long shot, at best, as the U.S. military won't comment on civilian casualties in general, let alone in particular, and certainly not put any journalist in contact with a suspected shooter. But this did not stop Robertson, who has filed dozens of stories from Iraq and Afghanistan for Salon since 2001.

Steve Butler, Knight Ridder's foreign editor, who said he read Salon story today "very carefully," told E&P: "We've been talking to the military in Baghdad and they are preparing an investigation. We would like the report of that investigation to be made public. It could be that this interview with the sniper is the only record we will have."

Just about all Robertson knew at the start was that at least four rounds had been fired at Salihee on June 24, some of them perhaps warning shots (though eyewitnesses dispute this), with one of them piercing his skull and killing him instantly. Salihee left behind a wife and 2-year-old daughter, as well as grieving colleagues at Knight Ridder.

To find the shooter, Robertson requested an embed slot in western Baghdad. (Butler, the Knight Ridder editor, told E&P that "it bothers me somewhat" that Robertson was "not being totally honest... embedding with the military with the purpose of doing his own investigation into this.") Two weeks later, he was able to find the unit, part of the 256th Brigade Combat Team, that took part in the fatal shooting.

Next, from a young specialist from Louisiana, he learned the names of two snipers with the unit. "The next night, the 13th of July," he writes, "I walked into the command post after dinner and recognized one of the men the young soldier had mentioned. The man was working on a notebook computer at a big table in the front room of the command post. We struck up a conversation."

The sniper, "a tall, good-looking man," started showing him pictures on his laptop, from back home and from Iraq. Eventually, he brought up a photo of what Robertson immediately recognized as the shooting scene: a white sedan with a single bullet hole in the driver's side of the windshield. Slumped behind the wheel was his friend, Yassir Salihee.

The sniper turned nervous, said, "I really hope he was a bad guy," and added that he wasn't sure that he was one who killed him, even though he admitted firing the shot through the windshield.

The next day, "Joe" agreed to answer questions, but asked the writer not to use his full name. "I don't want someone coming after me," he said. Robertson did not tell him he'd been trying to find him for two weeks, but when he interviewed him later he revealed that he knew the victim -- but Joe still agreed to talk.

Joe described for Robertson the events of the day leading up to Salihee approaching an intersection, then making an odd maneuver around a car that was turning around.

"I was shooting to disable when he swerved around the other car," Joe told him. "He was going more than 20 miles an hour. We aren't used to seeing someone drive that fast." Joe claimed that Salihee should have seen the soldiers and stopped, even before they allegedly fired warning shots, but he never even raised his hands off the wheel in surrender.

Robertson comments: "When Joe talked about his decision to fire at Salihee, he sounded anguished, but he kept coming back to the moment when Salihee passed the first car, the moment he decided that Salihee was a bomber attacking the U.S. position."

Then he quotes two Iraqi eyewitnesses who contradict Joe's account, one claiming that Salihee was stopped, with his hands up, when shot. In the police report, Robertson notes, a diagram shows that Salihee's car was indeed pulled over to the left side of the street. Proof of which version is correct is very murky, but Robertson reveals: "The evidence suggests that Salihee might have had his hands raised. Four fingers on Salihee's right hand were missing."

Taking a broader look, however, he concludes: "The details may be murky, but in retrospect it is fairly clear what happened... The soldiers were on edge, but they seem to have followed their rules of engagement. It was a typical misunderstanding, of the sort that happens all the time in Iraq." No disciplinary action is likely.

Robertson points out that a spokesman for the coalition forces told the Los Angeles Times that he did not know of a single soldier who had been punished for shooting a civilian in a traffic incident or at a checkpoint.

Robertson's story closes: "Before I left Joe at his company headquarters at Camp Victory, he said he wanted to tell the Salihee family he was sorry and that he'd never had to fire to stop a car before the 24th of June. 'If I'd seen his hands up, no way would I have fired a shot. We didn't murder him. No way was it murder,' Joe said. But there was desperation in his voice, as if he wasn't sure."

More on U.S.-caused civilian casualties here


Henry Porter said...

I read this account with keen interest. I remember the Salihee shooting very clearly. The protestations of "Joe" aside, I am still bothered by the fact that the last story Salihee was working on was the same story Steve Vincent and Fahker Haider were working before they were shot.

Steve From Virginia said...

Joe Romero had no business being in Iraq in the first place.

He went because he wanted to be there, snipers train to kill, people become snipers because they want to kill. What does two plus two equal?

As in Vietnam, the US sets loose serial killers like Romero in a country overseas so American bosses can get rich.