(PORTIONS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN FEBRUARY 2012)This is the story of how the three most powerful men in America were responsible for the gang rape of a 14-year-old girl, who was burned to a blackened char, and the murder of her parents and sister.
The enablers of these heinous crimes were President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who conspired to invade Iraq for bogus reasons, then starved the Army of the men and materiel to get the job done, which led to a lengthy occupation that triggered an Al Qaeda insurgency and a protracted civil war.
Journalist Jim Frederick describes the scene that Abu Muhammad came upon when he was summoned to his cousin's house on March 12, 2006:
"Abu Muhammad had seen what the insurgent death squads could do, but he had never witnessed anything like this. Each body was a different sort of travesty. Qassim, the father, was facedown in the far corner of the bedroom, in a lake of his own burgundy blood. His shirt was brightly patterned, striped with white, orange and brown. The front of his skull had been blasted off. Gore and large chunks of gray matter stippled the walls in a wide, V-shaped pattern. A large amount of Qassim's brain, about the size of a fist, lay nearby on an intricately woven rug.
"Not far from Hassim was Hadeel, just six years old. Wearing a bright pink dress, she was beautiful, her face almost pristine like a death mask, except that she was covered with blood, liters of it. It was everywhere, matting her hair, soaking her dress, covering her face in a thin dried sheen. A bullet fired from behind -- perhaps she had been running away from her assailant -- had blown the back right quadrant of her skull apart, A piece of it was lying several feet away, covered in skin and hair. Her hair band had been thrown across the room by the whiplash of the impact. In her right hand she was still clutching some plants she had just picked, a kind of wild sweet grass that Iraqi children frequently gather and eat for fun.
"Closest to the door was Fakhirah, the mother, wearing a black abaya and an emerald velveteen housedress embroidered with white flowers. She was lying on her back with her eyes wide open. Abu Muhammad thought his cousin might still be alive. He reached down to feel her pulse. Nothing. She was dead. He turned her over, and then he saw the hole. She had been shot in the back, but the rich, dark hues of her clothing obscured the full extent of her wound.
"Shaken, Abu Muhammad moved into the living room. There was Abeer, only fourteen years old. What they had done to her, it was unspeakable. Her body was still smoking; her entire upper torso had been scorched, much of it burnt down to ash. Her chest and face were gone with only the tips of her fingers sticking out from the purple scraps of her dress sleeves, recognizably human. The lower half of her body, however, was mostly intact. Her thin, spindly legs were spread and, rigid in death, still bent at the knees. She was naked from the waist down, her tights and underwear nearby."
NEVER CALLED TO ACCOUNTWhy dredge up a nearly nine-year-old incident in a war that effectively ended in December?
The answer is that today would have been Abeer Qassim Hamza's 23rd birthday. And that Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld have never been called to account for masterminding the greatest foreign policy disaster in American history. And never will be. Absent a deathbed confession, we cannot expect any member of this troika to acknowledge that the deaths of nearly 4,000 Americans, Abeer and her family and perhaps 100,000 Iraqis in all was because of their politically-driven neocon blood lust.
The vast majority of the soldiers sent to Iraq performed and behaved admirably, and that was true of most of the troopers in 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division.
There was only one other known atrocity of this magnitude in Iraq -- the Hadifa Massacre, and rapes and murders were extremely rare in Iraq despite the fact that they happen in every war and by one estimate U.S. troops raped 18,000 women in the European theater between 1942 and 1945.
First Battalion was assigned to the Triangle of Death, an area south of Baghdad that only weeks after the March 2003 invasion already was becoming the most restive hotbed of the insurgency. There were far too few boots on the ground to effectively deal with the task at hand, pleas for more troops went unheeded, and when commanders complained to the Pentagon about troop levels they effectively short-circuited their careers.
The travails of Bravo Company, home to the men who went on the rape and murder spree, were especially severe. They were physically isolated and had no knowledge of how their efforts were fitting into the war's broader strategy, let alone what that strategy might be.
The rape and murders were singularly heinous because they were so calculated. But to lay the entire responsibility for them on Private First Class Steven Green, who was the ringleader, and Sergeant Paul Cortez and Privates First Class James Barker, Brian Howard and Jesse Spielman is wrong because others up the chain of command all the way to the Pentagon and White House also were culpable.
ONE BIG KILLING FIELDBy the time 1st Battalion deployed to the Triangle of Death in November 2005, the people whom Cheney had declared would welcome Americans with open arms were longing for Saddam Hussein. Iraq had become one big killing field with armed militias roaming the cities and countryside, and Shiites and Sunnis killing whomever they pleased at will.
The Georgia National Guard unit that the 1st Battalion replaced had become so cowed that it had stopped patrolling roads where IEDs (improvised explosive devices) had detonated, meaning that pretty much the entire area went uncovered as the guardsmen cowered in their barracks.
Despite boasts by Rumsfeld, that the troops in Iraq were the best equipped in the history of warfare, the conditions that 1st Battalion had to endure were deplorable.
As Frederick writes in Black Hearts: One Platoon's Descent Into Madness in Iraq's Triangle of Death, there was no chow hall or even a kitchen to cook meals except at Camp Striker, the battalion headquarters. At bases "away from the flagpole," in military parlance, all food was either MRE combat rations or hamburger patties and steaks that had to be grilled on storm drains. There were no dishes or cutlery so the men had to eat MREs and grilled meat with their hands.
There was no electricity and no lighting that wasn't battery operated, no air conditioning during the day and no heat at night. There were no showers and no toilets, and troopers defecated into so-called WAG Bags, garbage bags with solvents inside that were tied off, thrown in a pit and burned. First Platoon's first major casualty was to be a soldier who suffered bad burns when he threw a match into a diesel fuel-soaked pit filled with the bags.
Humvees were inadequately armored and there wasn't enough body armor to go around, a situation that was not corrected until later in the war and only then because of an expose in a stateside newspaper. And there were no coordinated night recognition signals, resulting in troopers firing on the trucks of other troopers, sometimes with fatal results.
Then there was battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel Tom Kunk.
"His reaction to everything was the same," a company first sergeant told Frederick. "If you lost a soldier, or if you had cigarette butts on the FOB [forward operating base], it was the same reaction. He would explode on you. He would just lose his mind, which made his whole leadership style just totally ineffective."
Said one captain: "If you continually crush their spirit, they are going to be timid, wondering if everything they do will earn them another ass chewing. It had an impact on the way those guys operated."
Kunk also whitewashed the reports he sent up to brigade headquarters."They would call three guys a squad," a first sergeant said. "But you can't turn three guys into nine unless you're lying."
"It's not like one little piece of information is going to lose the war," a company executive office said, "but when you see the cumulative effect of information becoming whitewashed in order to tell a story that a battalion or brigade commander wants to tell to their highers, then you got real problems. That's the more sinister side of it."
Meanwhile, the Iraq Army was useless and 1st Platoon troopers quickly came to loath the civilian population. The one member of the platoon who took a liking to Iraqis, becoming nearly fluent in Arabic as he got to know the locals, was called "an Iraqi cock sucker."
And the enemy was everywhere.
HE WAS CRAZY"What that company is going through would turn your hair white," an officer at Camp Victory in Baghdad told Frederick. "I'm only twenty miles away, and most of the people on Victory have no idea how bloody the fight is down there."
IEDs were cleared with the help of Iron Claw bomb-sniffing teams riding in massive armored vehicles, but as soon as a road was cleared it was reseeded by insurgents. The battalion resorted to parking Humvees at one- or two-mile intervals along a key road that was a resupply route, but the ideal relief in the form of Iraqi soldiers manning these checkpoints never came. They simply refused to operate in so dangerous an area.
The parked vehicles evolved into poorly defended Tactical Check Points surrounded by concertina wire where soldiers would be assigned for six-day intervals, further depleting the platoon's patrol and combat power, and most troopers felt like they were school crossing guards when manning them. When six-foot cubed mesh baskets that when filled made excellent defensive barriers finally arrived, there were no backhoes to fill them.
It was at one such checkpoint at the edge of Mahmudiya that Steven Green helped hatch the plan to rape Abeer and kill she and her family.
With the Army strapped for personnel, Green had been granted a moral waiver because of prior convictions for drugs and other bad behavior when he enlisted in the Army, and by 2005 such waivers were granted to almost one in five recruits.
He was not a bad soldier, but he was crazy. He was a racist and white supremacist who was unable to control his impulses and railed about "niggers," Jews, northerners, foreigners and Iraqis. And he occasionally drooled, a childhood habit that he had not completely broken.Green, who became the first former U.S. soldier to face the death penalty for war crimes in a civilian court because he had been discharged before he was arrested, had matter of factly explained to a journalist three weeks before the rape-murders that "I came over here to kill people."
By December, 1st Platoon was losing men at the rate of about one a week and an already fraying platoon that lived "outside the wire" -- a term for the outposts -- was unraveling quickly, while Bravo Company's 2nd and 3rd Platoons seemed to be humming right along with few problems. Frederick attributes this to those platoons outstanding sergeants and active efforts to combat the hate that 1st Platoon had succumbed to.
Iraqi civilians were now being beaten routinely by 1st Platoon troopers, drinking increased and became more open, and men would burst into tears while eating their lunches. And after being continuously told that they were screwups, Frederick said the platoon subconsciously decided to live up to its outcast status.
Meanwhile, none of the basics essential to maintaining morale and welfare of combat soldiers had been provided and officers and NCOs who complained about this state of affairs were considered whiners.
Two platoon mates who had disobeyed one of Keck's orders and had taken off their helmets at one of the checkpoints were fatally shot in the head by an Iraqi civilian. This was followed by the deaths of two men in an IED blast and then two more in another blast. Later a forward operating base widely considered to be a firetrap burned to the ground because there were too few fire extinguishers.
The carnage prompted Green to tell Keck that "I just want to get out there and get some revenge on those motherfuckers. They all deserve to die."
"Calling them that is like calling me a nigger," interjected Command Sergeant Major Anthony Edwards, Keck's senior NCO. "This sounds like you hate a whole race of people."
"That's about it right there," said Green. "You just about summed it up."
Green had finally snapped.
"Most of the men by this point hated Iraqis and many would offhandedly opine that the whole country needed to be leveled, or the only good Iraqi was a dead Iraq," writes Frederick. "But only Green talked about killing Iraqis all the time. . . . Only he talked about burning them alive so they had to smell their own flesh cooking. Everybody was frustrated that the enemy was cowardly, but Green had a harder time accepting that this was simply the nature of this war: U.S. soldiers had to behave more honorably than the enemy. Why, he sincerely wanted to know, did Americans have to restrain themselves when the insurgents did not?"
Bravo's company commander sent Green to see a combat stress nurse who diagnosed him with Combat and Operational Stress Reaction, an Army term to describe the typically and usually transient stresses of warfare. The nurse noted Green's obsession with killing Iraqis and then sent him back to Bravo.
His next appointment with the nurse would be on March 20, eight days after the rape-murders.
On March 12, Green was pulling predawn guard duty in a gun truck at Tactical Command Post 2. He had been up for 18 hours. Two of 2nd Squads sergeants were elsewhere and Paul Cortez had been rotated in and left in charge although the sergeant was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
'I'VE NEVER FUCKED ONE OF THESE BITCHES'
"When I'm on guard next time," Green told Cortez and James Barker, "I'm going to waste a bunch of dudes in a car. And we'll just say they were running the TCP."
"Don't do that!" Cortez exclaimed. "Don't do it while I'm here. I'm supposed to be running this shit."
Barker agreed and said he had a better idea.
"We've all killed Hadjis [Iraqis], but I've been here twice and I still never fucked one of these bitches."
Cortez's interest was piqued, and so was Green's. They talked more about it as the morning wore on and Barker said that he had already picked the target -- a house not far from the checkpoint where a man and three women lived, one a teenager or in her twenties whom he thought was pretty hot. The family had an AK-47 assault rifle, which was allowable under Iraqi law, and he said he knew where it was hidden.
Witnesses were a problem, however, but Green said he would take care of that.
"You'll kill them, right?" Barker asked.
"Absolutely," Green replied. "It don't make any difference to me. A Hadji is a Hadji."
At around noon, the three men and Jesse Spielman sat down outside the TCP with a cardboard box as a table to play Uno. They drank Iraqi whiskey mixed with Rip It, a carbonated energy drink, and soon became very drunk.
Cortez finally said, "If we are going to do this, let's go before I change my mind." Cortez and Barker would take the girl, Green would kill the rest of the family, Spielman would pull guard and Bryan Howard, who was newly arrived in the platoon, would stay behind and man the radio.
Some of the men changed into clothing that made them look like insurgents. Green grabbed a shotgun, Barker took Howard's M4 carbine and Spielman picked up an M14 rifle.
The targeted house was the home of Qassim and Fakriah Hamza al-Janabi. They were poor but dreamed of building a big family and sending their children -- daughters Abeer, 14, and Hadeel, 6, and son Muhammad,12, who happened to be at school that afternoon -- to university.
With the arrival of the Americans in Mahmudiyah and the quick deterioration of relations between the occupiers and locals, Wassim and Fakriah had become concerned about their daughters, whom they took out of school.
Abeer was of special concern. She had big doe eyes, a small mouth and gentle features. On the verge of womanhood, she was tall for her age and her fragile beauty was attracting a lot of unwanted attention. Soldiers would give her the thumbs-up and say, "Very good, very nice," and Muhammad had once watched a soldier run a finger down terrified sister's cheek.
By early March, the harassment of Abeer had become so bad that cousin Abu Muhammad told the family that he would take her to live with him at his secluded house. Abeer stayed there only one night, March 9 or 10, and Qassim came the next day to bring her back home.
Frederick describes what transpired in a few short minutes:
"Sneaking up to the dingy home, Cortez and Barker broke to the right around a small shack in the front. Spielman and Green broke left. Spielman and Green found little Hadeel and father Qassim in the driveway. Green grabbed the man and Spielman grabbed the girl and they marched them inside. Barker and Cortez cleared the house, checking the foyer, the hallway, and moving plast the kitchen, where Cortez stopped to grab the woman, Fakhriah, and Abeer. Green and Spielman entered the house while Barker continued with the sweep, checking the bathroom and the toilet room, the bedroom and the living room. Then he headed up the stairs to the roof, checked the roof, and went back down the stairs.
"The others had corralled the whole family into the bedroom. After they had recovered the family's AK-47 and Green confirmed that it was locked and loaded, Barker and Cortez left, yanking Abeer behind them. Spielman pulled the bedroom door shut and then set up guard in the doorway between the foyer and the living room while Cortez shoved Abeer into the living room. Cortez pushed Abeer down on the ground and Barker walked over to her and pinned her outstretched arms down with his knees.
"In the bedroom, Green was trying to get the man, woman and child to lie down on the floor. They were scared, screaming in Arabic. Green was shouting back, 'Get down, get down now!'
"Back at the TCP, Howard was trying to get Cortez on the radio, each time saying there was a convoy coming and they needed to come back. They never responded. No Humvees actually came during the ten to 15 minutes that they were gone, but Howard was panicked. [Private Seth] Scheller and he were out there all alone.
"In the living room, Cortez pulled Abeer's tights off. She was crying, screaming in Arabic, trying to struggle free as Barker continued to hold her in place. Cortez was masturbating, trying to get an erection. He started to make thrusting motions. 'What the fuck am I doing?' he later recalled thinking at the time. 'At the same time, I didn't care, either. I wanted her to feel the pain of the dead soldiers.'
"In the bedroom, Green was losing control of his prisoners. They weren't getting down on the ground. Terrified, they were yelling, and they weren't responding to Green's orders. The woman made a run for the bedroom door. Green shot her once in the back and she fell to the floor. The man, agitated before, now became unhinged. Green turned the AK on him and pulled the trigger. It jammed. He tried to clear it several more times, but it kept sticking. Panicking, as the man started advancing on him, Green switched to his shotgun.
"Green couldn't remember if there was anything in the chamber, so he pumped once and a full shell ejected. Then, Green said, 'I shot him the way I had been taught: one in the head and two in the chest.' The first shot blasted the top of the man's head off. He dropped backward to the floor as buckshot from the following shots continued to riddle his body.
"Then Green turned toward the little girl, who was spinning away from him, running for a corner. Green returned to the AK and tried to clear it again, and this time it worked. He raised the rifle and shot Hadeel in the back of the head. She fell to the ground. . . .
"As Green was executing the family, Cortez finished raping Abeer and switched positions with Barker. Barker's penis was only half hard. Despite all her squirming and kicking, Barker forced himself on Abeer and raped her.
"Green came out of the bedroom and announced to Barker and Cortez, 'They're all dead. I killed them all.' Barker got up and headed toward the kitchen. He wanted to look outside the window, see if anything was happening outside. As he did that, Green propped the AK-47 he was carrying against the wall, got down between Abeer's legs, and as Cortez held her down, Green raped her. . . .
"The men were becoming extremely frenzied and agitated now. Spielman lifted Abeer's dress up around her neck and touched her exposed right breast. Barker brought a kerosene lamp he had found in the kitchen and dumped the contents on Abeer's splayed legs and torso. Spielman handed a lighter to either Barker or Cortez, who lit the flame. Spielman went to the bedroom and found some blankets to throw on the body to stoke the fire. As the flames engulfing Abeer's body grew, Green, hoping to blow up the house, opened the valve on the propane tank in the kitchen and told everybody to get out of there."The Iraqi Army began interviewing neighbors and family members the morning after the rape-murders. Some said that it was the Iraqi Army, others said it was the Americans and still others said that it was a family feud gone bad, while 1st Platoon said it was Sunni insurgents. The Hamza Al-Janabi family was buried in a nearby cemetery and there was little or no physical evidence beyond a few AK-47 shell casings.COVERUP, RETALIATION, AFTERMATH
On March 20, 2006, Green kept his appointment at the Combat Stress office in Mahmudiyah. He confessed to having recently thrown a puppy off of the roof of a house that was being searched and said that was no big deal. In subsequent meetings over the next few days, a combat stress nurse concluded that he wasn't registering the moral implications of what he had done.
She concluded that Green had a preexisting antisocial personality disorder, a condition marked by indifference to the suffering of others and recommended to Kunk the he be discharged. Even though Green had committed rape and quadruple homicide just 11 days earlier, the nurse's mental-health-status evaluation sheet that initiated the personality order discharge stated that his current potential for harm to others was "low."
Green remained at Mahmudiyah for a few more weeks for observation and processing. By April 14, he was headed back to the U.S. and was honorably discharged at Fort Campbell, Kentucky on May 16.
The cover-up of the rape-murders began to unravel in mid-June.
On June 16, the checkpoint where Green and the others had hatched the plot was attacked and overrun. Specialist David Babineau was killed and Privates First Class Thomas Tucker and Kristian Menchaca were captured.
The bodies of the two troopers were found on June 19, and judging from a video shot by the insurgent abductors, both were eviscerated and half naked, dirty with caked blood and mud, just as one would appear after being dragged behind a truck. Tucker was decapitated and a man, after holding his severed head aloft like a trophy, placed it on Tucker's body. Al Qaeda in Iraq later said the attack and another one that took three lives was in retaliation for the rape of Abeer and murder of her family and the leader of AQI had slaughtered the two men himself.
While the search for Tucker and Menchaca was on, Sergeant Tony Yribe remarked to Private First Class Justin Watt that "It just drives me crazy that all the good men die and the shitbag murderers like Green are home eating hamburgers."
"Murderers?" Watt asked.
Yribe told Watt about the rape-murders and that Green had confessed to him that he had acted alone. The less you know about it -- the better, Yribe had said.
Watt was horrified. He began obsessing on Abeer's father for reasons he didn't understand and couldn't sleep. When he ran into Howard he insinuated that something really messed up had happened in March. Convinced that Watt knew the whole story, Howard filled in many of the missing pieces and implicated Barker, Cortez and Spielman.
Watt called his father, who had been an airborne combat engineer in the 1970s, and asked him what he would do if his brothers in arms had done something really bad.
"You should let your conscience be your guide," his father had replied. "If it is as heinous as you say, you can't let your loyalty to your men get in the way of doing what is right."
Wanting to bypass what he believed would be a skeptical command structure, Watt revealed the crimes during a psychological health counseling session on June 22. Meanwhile, rumors about the rape-murder began to percolate through 1st Platoon and eventually reached Kunk after two troopers went to their superiors.
While skeptical of the allegations, Kunk ordered an investigation. Then, a few days after the memorial service for Babineau, Tucker and Menchaca, the commanding officer called a kind of town hall meeting.
Frederick writes that Kunk began by telling them, with complete unconcern for the men who were brave enough to speak up, "You are right to think that there is a lot of suspicion and finger-pointing going on because [two men] came forward to tell the chain of command that five of your shitbag friends probably raped a girl and killed her whole family. And these guys are cracking, it looks like they are guilty."
"We thought we were going to get the 'Keep your heads up' speech," said one soldier. " . . . He just crushed us."
The four active-duty soldiers involved were arrested and were court martialed.
Barker pleaded guilty to rape and murder as part of a plea agreement requiring him to testify against the other soldiers to avoid the death penalty. He was sentenced to 90 years in prison and must serve 20 years before being considered for parole.
Cortez pleaded guilty to rape and murder as part of a plea agreement to avoid the death penalty. He was sentenced to 100 years in prison and must serve 10 years before being considered for parole.
Spielman was convicted of rape and murder. He was sentenced to 110 years in prison with the possibility of parole after 10 years.
All three men are being held at the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
Howard was sentenced under a plea agreement to a dishonorable discharge. He served 27 months in prison for obstruction of justice and being an accessory after the fact.
Green was arrested as a civilian and was convicted in the U.S. District court in Paducah, Kentucky. In September 2009, he was sentenced to four consecutive life sentences in prison with no possibility of parole and was being held in the U.S. Penitentiary in Tucson, Arizona when he died in February 2014 from complications from hanging himself.Kunk, who was investigated because of reports of numerous acts of complacency and a lack of standards at the platoon level, received a letter of concern, the least serious form of admonishment and one that carries no real punitive weight or negative long-term implications for an officer's career. Two of his NCOs received letters of reprimand.
Justin Watt, the whistleblower, received a medical discharge. He said that he has received death threats.Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld are retired and except for Cheney, are little in the news. All three have published memoirs that whitewash their roles in starting and utterly screwing up America's longest war.Abeer's next-of-kin received a $30,000 check from the U.S. government in compensation for the rape-murders.PHOTOGRAPHS (From top): Cheney, Bush and Rumsfeld; Abeer; Blood-splattered wall of the Al Janabi home; Map of the Triangle of Death; Tactical checkpoint where rape-murder plot was hatched; 1st Platoon trooper on patrol; Green, possibly with the shotgun he used in the murders; Barker; Cortez; Spielman; Watt; Babineau; Menchaca; Tucker; Green at sentencing.