Commentary: Five years, and visions of dead are still haunting

Five years ago, Ishaqi, Iraq, became a killing place.

I was a reporter in Baghdad in March 2006, a nasty time. A lot of Iraqis were dying. The reports of bodies, found in canals or the desert, were horrifying. Often, the dead had torture wounds from power tools.

What happened in Ishaqi was recounted in one of those reports. The U.S. military released a statement noting that in attempting to arrest an al-Qaida suspect, five Iraqis were killed in a firefight. The suspect had been caught, so the mission was a success. As with most such reports, I might have simply put it aside. But I had just told one of the Iraqi journalists I worked with that I was sick of so much death passing silently. So I planned a simple story: Recounting a single moment in a single place.

That I picked an incident in Ishaqi, a village about 60 miles northwest, was pure chance.

At the time, the United States had a warning system for roads around Iraq. Green meant safe, yellow caution, red stop. Black was worse, often meaning al-Qaida was in control, or at least running periodic checkpoints. There was no way for the United States to control every road, or region, at least not back then.

On that day, the map showed almost an entire national road network in black. My private security guard called the idea of a trip to Ishaqi insanely dangerous. He wouldn't approve and grounded me.

Unable to go myself, I contacted an Iraqi journalist my office often worked with. For $50 a day, he'd be my feet on the ground. He went out with a cell phone and camera. When he'd approach someone, I'd ask a question for him to translate and pursue. But during the first interview in Ishaqi, he broke in to let me know my facts were wrong.

Eleven, not five, people had died in the incident. Five of the dead were children, age five or younger. Five were women: mothers, aunts and a grandmother. One was a 75-year-old man, a grandfather. He sent a photo: five kids, dead, gently wrapped in blankets and piled into a pickup bed to be taken for burial.

The dead had been found under rubble in the ruins of a single room against a wall. The house had collapsed.

It made no sense.

So he went to find Iraqi police who'd been at the scene. He found them in a Joint Coordination Center, where they worked and were trained by U.S. troops.

The police were certain and clear: U.S. soldiers had done this, from close range. They called it execution style.

A local Iraqi doctor had done the autopsies. He could speak English, so I talked to him. All he knew for certain was that the victims had all been shot in the head from close range. He couldn't prove it but was convinced the bullets came from M-16 rifles. In a desert where M-16s are too delicate to make much sense, only U.S. troops use them.

In Baghdad, the military spokesman I found inside the Green Zone was almost speechless. He was able to confirm that a mistake had been made, 11 had died. And he could confirm the dead were children, women or elderly. But a suspect, he said, had been arrested, in the collapsed living room. He was being questioned. Somewhere. It still didn't make any sense.

So I wrote stories without answers. Later, the official U.S. report on what is known as the Ishaqi Incident said nothing illegal happened. The official Iraqi response rejected that claim. To me, assigning blame misses the point.

Ishaqi is the nature of war. It is violent, chaotic and unpredictable. It is not clean, it is not "smart bombs." Good guys do not necessarily live; bad guys do not necessarily die.

When we take up arms, somewhere innocent children will die. And those innocent children will be killed by the actions of the equally innocent children we send off to war. And that killing will change our children, forever.

I've never been able to believe that young Americans intentionally did what happened in Ishaqi. When I stare at the photo of the dead babies that I still keep with me, I weep to think of the cost to everyone involved.

And when I see what is being described as "mission creep" in Libya -- advisers and drones now involved -- I can't help but worry about our next war. And our next Ishaqi.