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Friendly fire killed an Iraqi interpreter. The U.S. told his family something else

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Now a story of betrayal and brotherhood in the early years of the Iraq War. On April 12, 2004, U.S. troops fighting in Fallujah took mortar fire from other Americans. Two Marines were killed. A dozen were wounded. But this is the story of a third man who was killed, and his death isn't in the official report, a report that was buried for years. But as part of the NPR podcast series Taking Cover, Graham Smith and Tom Bowman discovered the man was an Iraqi interpreter named Shihab.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: We came to Iraq to talk with Shihab's family. We found them living in Baghdad, but it was clear they were still in the dark about how he died. And they were nervous about meeting with us, worried they'd be targeted because of their brother's work with the Americans. So they only allow us to visit under the cover of darkness.

GRAHAM SMITH, BYLINE: Good to go?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah.

BOWMAN: They live behind an auto mechanic shop in a neighborhood that was a no-go zone for Americans like us at the height of the war and where sectarian tensions remain high.

SMITH: Shihab's youngest brother, Arkan, greets us inside the auto shop and leads us along a passageway to another door and into a bright sitting room - high ceilings and sofas around three sides.

BOWMAN: Hi, Tom. Very nice to meet you.

SMITH: As we're settling in, they bring cups of tea and a tray of baklava. We tell them about the friendly fire, about the Marines who were killed, how their families hadn't got the truth till years later.

BOWMAN: We told them how most of the wounded men never got the investigative report and about our efforts to find out why it was all buried. We also told them how the medics who cared for Shihab remembered him talking about his family.

SMITH: You know, before he went unconscious, he was talking about his sister and how proud he was of his sister and how much he cared about his family and how much he loved them. And I also wanted to say that...

NIDHAL: (Sniffling).

SMITH: ...Even though the report didn't say anything about the Iraqi interpreter, it was very important to these Marines and to the medics who were there that everybody remember there was a third man killed, but we didn't know anything about him.

BOWMAN: They tell us their mother died of an illness and their father was killed for his disloyalty to Saddam, which left Shihab to provide for the younger children.

ARKAN: Yeah. He's like a father, not like a brother. He's like friend. (Non-English language spoken).

SMITH: Arkan says Shihab taught him taekwondo and chess. He remembers Shihab used to win even after taking most of his pieces off the board. And he taught them all how to swim. He'd take the whole family down to the river.

BOWMAN: The eldest sister, Nidhal, tells us that after the U.S. invasion, Shihab signed up as an interpreter for the Americans.

NIDHAL: (Through interpreter) Shihab was making good money. He said he would buy us a house one day. But then when he told me he was going to Fallujah, how the situation there was escalating, an ominous feeling rose up.

BOWMAN: What's the last thing you said to him? Did you say be careful? Did you say, I'm worried about you? Do you remember what you said to him?

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: She or...

BOWMAN: Yeah, what she said to him.

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: (Non-English language spoken).

NIDHAL: (Through interpreter) I told him this might be our last farewell. Well, he went away to Fallujah, and a few days later, a friend of his, Fadi, came to say Shihab was killed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NIDHAL: He said we should go get his body from the morgue.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BOWMAN: Shortly after the family buried Shihab, Nidhal was called to meet with an American officer.

NIDHAL: (Through interpreter) He offered his condolences, and he gave me this certificate, and he gave me $9,000.

SMITH: At that time, families of U.S. service members received a death gratuity of a hundred thousand dollars, and most got a quarter-of-a-million-dollar insurance payout. Shihab's family tells us they got $9,000 cash and a certificate of appreciation. What they didn't get was the truth.

BOWMAN: And again, I just want to be doubly sure. The general definitely said it was terrorist...

SMITH: Enemy rocket.

BOWMAN: Enemy rocket.

ARKAN: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: So he said the terrorist launched a rocket and caused the death of Shihab.

ARKAN: Just to say, he killed by terrorist, not friendly fire.

BOWMAN: We hand them a copy of the investigative report, explain the findings.

SMITH: But there's no doubt whatsoever that it was definitely an American mortar.

ARKAN: Why he didn't tell the truth?

SMITH: Well, that's the question.

BOWMAN: Well, here's the thing. We should start...

ARKAN: We don't want anything.

BOWMAN: Well, we should...

ARKAN: Why he didn't tell the truth? I don't care. So why he didn't tell us? I don't [expletive] care about any [expletive] thing. Why he a liar to us? That I want to know - why he's a liar to us.

BOWMAN: The families of the American Marines - they'd heard rumors almost immediately, and the military eventually told them it was friendly fire. Shihab's family - they've been living with this lie for nearly two decades.

NIDHAL: (Through interpreter) I always liked the Americans, especially the Marines. I feel that way up until this moment. But now it turns out that I was such a fool. I was so wrong.

ARKAN: Is that country of freedom?

SMITH: We talk for a while longer and answer what we can. The youngest sister, Aliaa, says living in poverty in Baghdad - it's not easy. They wonder if the U.S. can help.

ALIAA: (Through interpreter) We are not asking too much. Maybe if they can just find a job for me or for Arkan.

SMITH: Will they get help from the U.S.? The American Embassy wouldn't comment. Their only suggestion - try getting a hold of officials who were working in Iraq at the time.

BOWMAN: Since we returned from Iraq, we've learned that Shihab's family could have benefited from a U.S. government insurance policy created to aid survivors of locals killed while working for the U.S., but they were never told about the program.

I'm Tom Bowman.

SMITH: And I'm Graham Smith, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF CALUM GRAHAM AND ANTOINE DUFOUR'S "GRACE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.
Graham Smith is a producer, reporter and editor whose curiosity has taken listeners around the U.S. and into conflict zones from the Mid-East to Asia and Africa.