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Coalition Apologizes to Family of Shiite Community Leader Killed by US Soldier - 2003-11-14

In Iraq, coalition officials have apologized to the family of a prominent Shiite Muslim community leader in Baghdad, who was shot and killed by an American soldier last Sunday. The man's death has ignited deep anger among many Iraqi Shiite Muslims in the capital, whose support is crucial to coalition efforts to bring stability to Iraq.

The U.S. military and the family of Muhannad al-Kaabi still differ on the circumstances surrounding the death of the 28-year-old mechanical engineer.

The U.S. military admits a soldier fatally shot Mr. Kaabi Sunday during a heated argument. But the military says the soldier shot Mr. Kaabi only after he ignored several warning shots, and attacked another soldier, and tried to grab his weapon. Mr. Kaabi, who was shot in the upper leg, died a few hours later at a military hospital.

But Mr. Kaabi's family says Iraqi eyewitnesses have told them a very different story about what happened that day.

The slain man's younger brother, Hani al-Kaabi, says he was told that the soldier shot Mr. Kaabi in the back, as he and another soldier argued and began shoving each other.

"Muhannad used just his hands, and he [the soldier] killed [him] in cold blood. You know what I mean by cold blood? Like a mafia," he said.

The incident, which is still under investigation, has generated particular attention and controversy here, because Muhannad al-Kaabi was not an ordinary Iraqi citizen.

He was the chairman of the U.S.-supervised district advisory council that runs Sadr City, a desperately poor, mainly Shiite quarter of eastern Baghdad that is home to nearly one-third of the capital's six million people.

Friends who know Mr. Kaabi say he worked hard to win community support for the Sadr City council, whose members were chosen through an informal voting procedure set up by the Coalition Provisional Authority.

Fellow council member Hussein Abbas says Mr. Kaabi believed that working with coalition officials was the best way to help bring basic services to his long-suffering community.

Mr. Abbas says Mr. Kaabi dedicated himself completely to the task of improving the lives of his constituents. He says Mr. Kaabi did not care that some people viewed him as a traitor.

When the council was formed in June, few residents in Sadr City objected to having coalition officials participate in the political process. Most people welcomed the fall of Saddam Hussein's government, which brutally repressed Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority during its 30-year rule.

But, as the security situation in Baghdad began to worsen in recent months, support for the coalition has fallen.

Many Sadr City residents began turning to Moqtada al-Sadr, a junior Shiite religious cleric, who has called coalition political efforts illegitimate, and favors the creation of an Iranian-styled religious state in Iraq.

Tensions between U.S. troops and Sadr City residents rose sharply in August, after soldiers took down a banner inscribed with the name of one of Shiite Islam's most revered figures. At least 3,000 people protested the incident, and the U.S. military apologized.

U.S. officials have recently identified a Shiite extremist group called Muntada al-Wilaya, operating in Baghdad and southern Iraq. The group is believed to be actively recruiting poor, disenchanted Shiite Muslims to join the anti-coalition insurgency, which has been intensifying in Iraq in recent weeks.

Last month, two American soldiers were killed in an ambush in Sadr City. The attack followed the detention of a local cleric on suspicion of being involved in a deadly car bombing of a Sadr City police station a day earlier.

The American advisor to the Baghdad City Council, U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Joe Rice acknowledges Mr. Kaabi's controversial death comes at a delicate time for coalition officials.

"It's a very unfortunate incident," he said. "I did know him personally. He was absolutely committed to what we are trying to do here and getting the people in Sadr City and Baghdad a truly representative government. Even though this is a setback, I think he would want it to go on, and I think it will go on."

Council member Hussein Abbas agrees. The council's workload has been temporarily reduced to observe a mourning period. But Mr. Abbas says he believes most of the 40 members will return to work next week.

Still, Mr. Kaabi's brother, Hani, says he does not want to see any Iraqis working with Americans anymore. He angrily warns that Iraqi confidence and trust in the coalition authority are rapidly eroding.

"From the beginning of war, I have some hope the situation will be better," he said. "Every Iraqi people, they have this idea that things will be better. But even this hope begins to disappear."

Coalition officials have apologized for Sunday's incident. But Sadr City council members say they should also pay compensation to Mr. Kaabi's family, in accordance with tribal custom.