A family's tragedy in the fog of war
Father says all four kids died after U.S. tanks fired on car
By Sasha Johnson
CNN Washington Bureau
ST. LOUIS, Missouri (CNN) -- Even as Daham Kassim sits in his brother-in-law's comfortable suburban St. Louis home, his thoughts constantly turn back to his native Iraq and the tragic events that brought him to the United States.
On or about March 25, 2003, the beginning of the Iraq war, Daham, his wife, Gufran, his brother, and their four young children piled into the family's white Peugeot and headed north out of Nasiriya to escape the chaotic U.S. bombing and fighting.
They had waited all morning for a violent sandstorm to subside, but fear of being caught in the crossfire prompted Daham to leave despite the bad weather.
"There is sandstorm there and I don't see. I see nothing because sandstorm. So there is four or three tanks American tanks in the gate, Nasiriya gate," he says.
Daham says he stopped his car and after about a minute the tanks opened fire, instantly killing his 2-year-old and 9-year-old daughters.
He says two American troops approached his car. He remembers they called themselves "Chris" and "Joe."
"I saw them take my son, Mohammed ... it is difficult to breathing," he says, describing his son's grave condition. "My daughter, the fourth one, my daughter, Zainab, is still OK as I see her."
Daham was gravely injured, suffering gunshot and shrapnel wounds to his arms, legs and face. Gufran was shot in the chest and the blast broke both of her arms.
Mohammed, age 6, died minutes later.
Daham, Gufran and Zainab were taken to a U.S. field hospital a few miles away, but were moved to the Nasiriya Air Base hospital that evening when their beds were needed for wounded American troops.
"It is very, very cold," he says, remembering that night. "Then my daughter, Zainab, said, 'Pop, it is very cold.' But you know, I have nothing to help her, because I can't stand up. ... My legs is also broken. And my wife also, the two arms are broken. It is difficult to help my daughter, and [she] also died."
Daham and Gufran were eventually moved to the USS Comfort, a Navy hospital ship, where they stayed for approximately one month.
There, Daham's right leg was amputated and according to hospital ship records provided by Daham, his "poor" prognosis improved steadily.
The Kassims eventually returned to Nasiriya and were admitted to Nasiriya General Hospital on May 3, 2003.
The U.S. military cannot confirm or accept responsibility for the incident involving the Kassim family.
A spokesman for the U.S. Marine Corps said the Marines found "an incident reported up the chain of command that appears similar to what Mr. Kassim tells CNN."
Maj. Douglas Powell issued a statement saying that in late March "the Iraqi regular army and Fedayeen" [Saddam Hussein's specially picked troops] were implementing tactics such as using "civilian vehicles to drive close to and fire upon Marines."
In response, "hasty checkpoints" were set up, and in the engagement most closely matching Daham's account, the Marine statement said the civilian vehicle "failed to stop and was engaged. ... Based upon all the facts, it was determined the shooting did not violate our rules or engagement nor the law of war."
A Freedom of Information Act request yielded no written records about the incident. The lack of documentation can be blamed on the hectic pace of war and the tragic nature of conflict, Powell said.
Daham has written records of his U.S. military-supervised medical care. He also was able to obtain the death certificate for his 5-year-old daughter, Zainab, from the Army at the Nasiriya Air Base hospital.
Zainab's cause of death on March 27, 2003, is listed as "blast injury causing penetration of skull and exposure of brain."
An Army spokeswoman verified the document and said the number "000-00-027" listed in the "Social Security number" space on the form means that Zainab was the 27th Iraqi civilian to die at the base hospital.
While Daham is grateful for what the United States has done for Iraq and empathizes with American parents who have lost their children, he says what he really wants is an apology from the U.S. military.
"They don't care my story," he says. "The American government, I mean, and the American Army, ... but in the other side there is many, many American people help me."
Daham and Gufran were able to come to the United States because of Keith Lindsey, who runs Lindsey Manufacturing, a California-based company that specializes in emergency power restoration.
Before the accident, Daham was the director of the electricity system in the southwestern region of Iraq. Lindsey arranged for a six-month visa for the Kassims so Daham could acquire new skills and seek medical treatment.
Since their arrival in January, Daham's brother-in-law, Ihsan-Al-Yasiry, has arranged for pro-bono prosthesis and rehab care for Daham and English classes for Gufran.
Daham is only one of an untold number of Iraqi civilians injured since the start of the war. There is no reliable count of the number killed, although the Web site www.iraqbodycount.net puts the number at as many as 25,000.
"There is many people, many families like my situation, really. And this need help and support and stand with them, not leave them with no asking, nothing. This is not, not, not a way to live, not a way to understand each other," he says.
Daham and Gufran were scheduled to go back to Iraq the week of June 6. The couple has applied for an extension, because Gufran is now two months pregnant.
"No one can feel or imagine what we suffer what we felt. But we [are] looking for to start our life, this is what we want," Daham says. "We need help and support and everything to start our life again."