The Blackest Hearts: War Crimes in Iraq
March 2006, four US soldiers, strung out after months in the deadly
battleground south of Baghdad, hatched a plan: to carry out one of the
worst war crimes ever committed in Iraq.
By Jim Frederick
July 24, 2010
12 March 2006, Abu Muhammad heard a knock on his door. He lived in a
village just outside Yusufiyah, 20 miles south of Baghdad, and warily he
headed towards the window - since the invasion, you never knew who it
might be. It was a neighbour of his cousin and her husband, who lived in
a nearby hamlet. “You must come,” the man said. “Something has happened
at your cousin’s house, something terrible.”
the driveway, Abu Muhammad saw his cousin’s 11- and nine-year-old boys
wailing. They had just returned home from school. Smoke was billowing
from one of the windows.
Abu Muhammad circled the house,
looking in the windows. His cousin Fakhriah, her husband Qassim and
their six-year-old daughter Hadeel had all been shot. Their daughter
Abeer, 14, was naked from the waist down. 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.
“Come,” Abu Muhammad said to
the boys. “Come with me.” He dropped them with his wife and drove to a
nearby traffic control point, TCP1.
Staff Sergeant Chaz
Allen was in charge of TCP1 that day. He sent Sergeant Tony Yribe to
check it out. At just 22, Yribe looked like an action hero and was on
his second tour in Iraq. As usual, he noted, there were not enough men
to mount a proper patrol. Ideally, they shouldn’t be manoeuvring with
less than a squad, nine or 10 men. But that almost never happened. Here
in the so-called Triangle of Death, three-, four- and five-man patrols
were standard. Allen told him to pick up two men on his way, from TCP2.
“And be sure to bring a camera. Battalion is going to want pictures.”
was late afternoon. 1st Platoon, Bravo Company, and all of 1st
Battalion of the 502nd Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, had
been in theatre for nearly six months. The same to go. It felt like an
eternity – with an eternity yet to come.
Yribe arrived at
TCP2. Specialist Paul Cortez and Private First Class Jesse Spielman were
ready to go. At 23, Cortez was acting squad leader, a job many thought
beyond him. He had a reputation as an immature loudmouth with a nasty
streak, and he was in charge of a motley group of six soldiers down at
TCP2, some of whom had been on their own at this spartan, unfortified
outpost for 12 days straight. They were pretty ragged and strung out.
James Barker, 23, was next in seniority, a soldier renowned for being a
smart aleck and mischief-maker. Spielman, 21, was quiet and unassuming;
Private First Class Steven Green, also 21, never stopped talking.
Iraqi army soldiers were already at the house. It was grisly. Yribe
started taking pictures and directed the other soldiers to look for
evidence, but Cortez started dry heaving. He looked green and pale, and
was drenched with sweat.
“Jesus, just go outside,” Yribe
told Cortez. Spielman was cool and efficient, but the burnt girl’s
remains were so disgusting they just left her where she was. As the men
moved a mattress, something small and green skittered across the ground.
It was a spent shotgun shell. That’s odd, Yribe thought, Iraqis don’t
really use shotguns.
In mid-2006, three years after the
toppling of Saddam’s regime, the 330 square mile region south of Baghdad
that encompassed the Triangle of Death had become one of the deadliest
locales in the country. It was a battleground of the incipient civil war
between Sunnis and Shias, and a way station for terrorists of every
allegiance, ferrying men, weapons and money into the capital.
two years later, the region had been effectively pacified, patrolled by
30,000 men (including Iraqi forces) who experienced about two attacks a
week. Back then, however, it was occupied by just 1,000 US soldiers,
who coped with more than 100 attacks each week against them and Iraqi
civilians. With far fewer troops and resources than they needed, the
1-502nd Infantry Regiment - a light battalion of around 700 men - was
flung out there with orders, essentially, to save the day. During their
year-long deployment, 21 men were killed, with scores more wounded badly
enough to be evacuated home. Seven of those who died came from the same
group of around 35 men: 1st Platoon.
In December 2005,
Staff Sergeant Travis Nelson and Sergeant Kenith Casica of 1st Platoon
were shot dead at TCP2 by a lone Iraqi who had given them information in
the past. “That’s when things started to turn,” says Staff Sergeant
Chris Payne, leader of 1st Platoon’s 2nd Squad. A few days later, two
more men of 1st Platoon were killed by an IED (improvised explosive
The feeling that death was certain was becoming
pervasive in 1st Platoon, and spreading like a panic. More and more men
started to believe they simply weren’t going home. Some say drinking was
becoming fairly common. There were plenty of interpreters who were
happy to procure bottles of whiskey or gin, or even pills or hash, for
any soldier who wanted them.
Green was reacting
particularly badly. He had always been a loudmouth, racist and
misogynist. An evaluation form filled out by the Combat Stress team
around that time is a horror show of ailments and dysfunctions. Green
told them he was a victim of mental and physical childhood abuse by his
mother and brother, he was an adolescent drug and alcohol abuser, and
had been arrested several times. Now, he said, he was having suicidal
and homicidal thoughts. One entry states, “Interests: None other than
By this point, extreme hatred of Iraqis
had become common in the platoon and was openly discussed. They became
more aggressive: suspects were beaten, house searches got more violent,
drinking became more open and was not limited to the ranks. The men were
at a far lower ebb than even those meant to monitor them realised.
patrols, Green often volunteered to kill. “I was always saying, ‘Any
time you all are ready, you all are the ones in charge of me. Any time
you all say the word, 'Go’, it’s on,” he recalled.
after 4pm on 5 March, 21-year-old Specialist Ethan Biggers was shot in
the head. He had been the entire company’s little brother; he and his
fiancee were expecting their first child.
On 12 March,
Green was pulling pre-dawn guard in the gun truck at TCP2. He’d been up
for 18 hours. “When I’m on guard next time,” he told Cortez and 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 said. “Don’t do it while I’m here. I’m supposed to be running this shit.”
agreed. “I’ve got a better idea,” he said. “We’ve all killed Hadjis,
but I’ve been here twice and I still never fucked one of these bitches.”
Cortez’s interest was piqued. They talked about it semi-seriously, as they did other things throughout the rest of the morning.
had already picked the target. There was a house, not far away, where
there was only one male and three females during the day - a husband,
wife and two daughters. One was young, but the other was pretty hot, at
least for a Hadji chick. Witnesses were a problem, though; they knew
they couldn’t leave anyone alive. Barker asked Green if he was willing
to take care of that, even if women and kids were involved.
“Absolutely,” Green said. “It don’t make any difference to me.”
refined their plan and, over several hours, went back and forth on
whether or not to do it. Barker was pushing hard, and Green was game,
but finally Cortez said, “No, fuck it, this is crazy. Fuck this. There
is no way we are doing this shit.”
At around noon, with a
new wave of boredom taking hold, the three of them, with Spielman, sat
down outside to play Uno and drink whiskey. The men got drunker and
drunker, and eventually Cortez declared, “Fuck it, we are going to do
this.” He outlined the mission and divvied up the duty assignments just
like a legitimate patrol. He and Barker would take the girl, Green would
kill the rest of the family, Spielman would pull guard and 18-year-old
Private First Class Bryan Howard, a recent arrival, would stay back and
man the radio.
Spielman, who had not heard of the plan until then, did not bat an eye. “I’d be down with that.”
Cortez went out to the truck to check on Private Seth Scheller, who was the only one on guard. Scheller was also new.
briefed Howard. He said they knew of an Iraqi girl who lived nearby,
and they were going to go and fuck her. To Howard, it was the most
insane thing he’d ever heard. He didn’t believe it, nor that they were
leaving him and Scheller alone. Cortez gave him the radio and told him
to call if any patrols or Humvees came through. The men, armed and
disguised, headed out the back of the TCP.
Rashid al-Janabi was not from the Yusufiyah area. After the 1991 Gulf
war, when UN sanctions made life even tougher, he and his wife Fakhriah
had moved to be closer to her family and to look for work. A daughter,
Abeer, was born in August 1991; soon after came two sons, Muhammad and
Ahmed, and another daughter, Hadeel.
When the US invaded,
local people were hopeful, but soon the area began to fall apart from
neglect and violence. The locals felt persecuted. The US patrols were
brutish. Qassim’s brother-in-law was gunned down in cold blood by the
Americans in Iskandariyah in early 2005, said his sister. Other family
members got hauled off to jail for no reason, with no indication of when
they’d come home.
Fakhriah was particularly worried about
Abeer. Now 14, her fragile beauty was attracting a lot of unwanted
attention. Soldiers would give her the thumbs up and say, “Very good,
very nice.” By early March, the harassment was getting so bad that Abu
Muhammad told the family to leave Abeer with him; there were more people
at his house and it was less secluded. But Abeer stayed there only one
night, on 9 or 10 March. With his protection, Qassim assured Abu
Muhammad, they’d be fine.
Sneaking up on the house, the
soldiers corralled the whole family into the bedroom. After they had
recovered the family’s AK-47 and Green had confirmed it was locked and
loaded, Barker and Cortez left, yanking Abeer behind them. Spielman set
up guard in the doorway between the foyer and living room, while Cortez
shoved Abeer into the living room, pushed her down, and Barker pinned
her outstretched arms down with his knees.
In the bedroom,
Green was losing control of his prisoners. The woman made a run for the
door. Green shot her once in the back and she fell to the floor. The
man became unhinged. Green turned his own AK on him and pulled the
trigger. It jammed. Panicking, as the man advanced on him, Green
switched to his shotgun. The first shot blasted the top of the man’s
head off. Then Green turned to the little girl, who was running for a
corner. This time the AK worked. He raised the rifle and shot Hadeel in
the back of the head. She fell to the ground.
came in, saw the carnage and was furious. Green explained the AK had
jammed and Spielman began searching for shotgun casings.
Green was executing the family, Cortez finished raping Abeer and
switched positions with Barker. Green came out of the bedroom and
announced to Barker and Cortez, “They’re all dead. I killed them all.”
Cortez held Abeer down and Green raped her. Then Cortez pushed a pillow
over her face, still pinning her arms with his knees. Green grabbed the
AK, pointed the gun at the pillow, and fired one shot, killing Abeer.
men were becoming extremely frenzied and agitated now. Barker brought a
kerosene lamp he had found in the kitchen and dumped the contents on
Abeer. 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.
The four men ran back the way
they had come. When they arrived at the TCP, they were out of breath,
manic, animated. They began talking rapid-fire about how great that was,
how well done. They all agreed that was awesome, that was cool.
hours later, Yribe was still mulling over what he had seen. You don’t
see a lot of girls that little murdered in Iraq, he thought to himself.
And the burning of the other girl’s body - that was strange, too:
burning was a huge desecration. Then there was the shotgun shell. The
shotgun is almost exclusively an American weapon.
approached TCP2 to drop off Spielman and Cortez, Green was waiting in
the street. He pulled Yribe aside. “I did that shit,” he said.
“What?” Yribe said.
“I killed them,” Green repeated. Barker was standing next to Green, but didn’t say a word.
off guard, Yribe dismissed it as more of Green’s crazy talk. It was
insane. How could a scrawny guy slip away from a TCP by himself in the
middle of the day and rape and murder a family? But Green kept
insisting. Yribe told him to shut up, he didn’t have time for his
bullshit right now.
The next day, Cortez went to Yribe in
tears. He said he was so shaken up by what he had seen in the house, he
needed to go to Combat Stress.
While Yribe covered for
Cortez, he found Green. He’d been thinking over what Green had told him
the day before and it was bothering him. “Now,” he demanded, “tell me
everything, every detail.”
Green started to talk. Again,
Barker was there and, again, he did not say a word. The thing that
really convinced Yribe was not what Green was saying but how he was
saying it. Ordinarily, Green was manic and boastful. Right now, however,
Green was serious, sober, matter-of-fact.
When Green was
finished, Yribe told him, “I am done with you. You are dead to me. You
get yourself out of this army, or I will get you out myself.”
decided not to say anything and, as there were no witnesses, the bodies
had been removed so quickly and so many soldiers had tramped over the
house, there was no usable physical evidence beyond a few AK-47 shell
casings. Without conclusive evidence, it was instantly a cold case, like
tens of thousands of murders in Iraq that year.
March, Green went to Combat Stress and, over a few days, was diagnosed
with a pre-existing antisocial personality disorder, a condition marked
by indifference to the suffering of others, habitual lying and disregard
for the safety of self or others. The diagnosis carried immediate
expulsion from the army. Back in the US, on 16 May, he was honourably
discharged and returned to society.
On 16 June, three more
of 1st Platoon’s men - Private First Class Thomas Tucker, Specialist
David Babineau and Private First Class Kristian Menchaca were attacked
on guard. Babineau was killed, the others captured. Three days later
they were found, murdered, burnt and mutilated. When Yribe heard, he
lost it. “It drives me crazy,” he said to Private First Class Justin
Watt, “that all the good men die and the shitbag murderers like Green
are home eating hamburgers.”
“Murderers?” Watt asked.
told Watt about the day at the checkpoint and how Green had confessed
to him. Watt couldn’t believe what he was hearing, and didn’t believe
Green could have acted alone. “Just forget I said anything,” Yribe said.
But Watt couldn’t forget. He began obsessively mulling it over.
lunchtime on 19 June, Watt ran into Howard and Private First Class
Justin Cross. As they were talking, Watt remembered both guys had been a
part of the group at TCP2 that day back in March. They discussed all
the messed-up stuff they had seen, and Watt brought up the girl who got
burnt. Convinced Watt knew the whole story, Howard filled in many of the
That night, Watt recounted it all to
Yribe, but again he said he didn’t see what good was going to come from
digging it up. For a while, Watt did try to forget. But he kept coming
back to the father. He imagined the powerlessness, the impotence, of
having armed men break into your house and there being nothing you could
do to protect your family. Watt ran it over in his mind again and
again. He resolved that he couldn’t just let this pass.
23 June, Watt spoke to his immediate superiors. Over the next two days,
the matter reached the highest levels. The soldiers involved were
interviewed and, with varying degrees of vehemence and evasiveness, each
claimed to have no knowledge of the crime. But over the next five days,
and over multiple interrogation sessions, Barker, Cortez and Spielman
all broke down and confessed, corroborating Howard’s narrative, though
each resisted fully implicating himself.
The US army paid
the Janabi family $30,000 for the murders of Qassim, Fakhriah, Abeer and
Hadeel. Nine months into a year-long deployment, 1st Platoon’s war was
Back in the US, Green was arrested by
the FBI. The crime was making news, and al-Qaida was exploiting the
outrage for maximum propaganda. On 10 July, the Mujahideen Shura Council
issued a five-minute video showing the mutilated corpses of Tucker and
Menchaca. Its audio includes clips of Osama bin Laden’s and Abu Musab
al-Zarqawi’s speeches, as well as the message that the video was being
presented as “revenge for our sister who was dishonoured by a soldier of
the same brigade”.
Although there was virtually no usable
forensic evidence, the army’s cases against Barker and Cortez were
particularly strong, based on their confessions, and both offered to
plead guilty to conspiracy to commit rape and murder and other charges
if the army agreed not to pursue the death penalty. The army accepted,
and sentenced Barker and Cortez to 90 years and 100 years at the
military’s maximum security prison. They will be eligible for parole in
20 and 10 years respectively.
In March 2007, Howard
pleaded guilty to conspiracy to obstruct justice and being an accessory
after the fact. He was sentenced to 27 months in prison, and was
released on parole after 17.
Spielman’s lawyers claimed he
did not know where the rogue patrol was going on 12 March and, once at
the house, was too surprised and scared to do anything about it. A
military panel did not believe these claims of innocence, found him
guilty of all charges and sentenced him to life in prison. His sentence
was later reduced to 90 years; he, too, will be eligible for parole
after 10 years.
Because Green had been discharged, his
case proved to be much more complicated. The Justice Department
announced it was pursuing the death penalty, making him the first former
service member ever to face the possibility of execution in a civilian
court for his conduct during war. His defence team twice offered to have
him plead guilty if the government would take the death penalty off the
table; twice the Justice Department declined. To this day, his defence
attorney maintains that this was a politically motivated appeasement to
the Iraqi government and public opinion. His attorneys also tried
several times to have Green reinducted into the army and tried by court
martial. The army declined the offers.
After ruling out an
insanity defence, Green’s attorneys decided their best hope was to
focus on the horrible conditions under which Bravo worked, Green’s
abysmal upbringing, the leadership failures that plagued every level of
the 1-502nd and the warning signs of his murderous obsessions that his
superiors routinely ignored. During several dramatic weeks of testimony,
the defence ran a trial within a trial against the army’s negligence in
allowing the atrocity to happen, while prosecutors emphasised the
heinousness of Green’s behaviour.
The jury of nine women
and three men found Green guilty of all counts of conspiracy, rape and
murder, but hung, six against six, on the issue of whether to sentence
him to death, triggering an automatic sentence of life in prison without
Relatives of the murdered family, including Abu
Muhammad, had testified during the trial, and afterwards were allowed to
address the court. Abu Muhammad spoke last, praising his slain family
members and criticising the jury’s reluctance to execute Green. He
concluded by turning to Green and saying, “Abeer will follow you and
chase you in your nightmares. May God damn you.”
Green was given the opportunity to make his first public statement. He
addressed the family, saying, “I am truly sorry for what I did in Iraq
and for the pain my actions, and the actions of my co-defendants, have
caused you and your family … I helped to destroy a family and end the
lives of four fellow human beings, and I wish that I could take that
back, but I cannot … I know if I live one more year or 50 more years
that they will be years that Fakhriah, Qassim, Abeer and Hadeel won’t
have. And even though I did not learn their names until long after their
deaths, they are never far from my mind … I know I have done evil, and I
fear the wrath of the Lord will come upon me. But I hope you and your
family at least can find some comfort in God’s justice.”
Green is currently serving five consecutive life sentences with no possibility of parole.
is an edited extract from Black Hearts: One Platoon’s Descent Into
Madness In Iraq’s Triangle Of Death, by Jim Frederick […].