When Training Iraqi Troops Turns Deadly

Nadia McCaffrey sensed something was amiss. In 2004, military officers told her that her son had been killed by insurgents near Balad. Sgt. Patrick McCaffrey, 34, had been a combat lifesaver in a National Guard unit in Iraq for two months. But soon after his death, members of Patrick's unit told Nadia that there was more to the story of that day than a common ambush. For two years, she pressed the military to come clean, demanding to see autopsy and "after-action" reports. Finally, last year, a general arrived at her home in Tracy, Calif., with the real account: Iraqi troops turned their rifles on Americans in a joint patrol, killing Patrick and an officer. Now Nadia, 61, wants to travel to Iraq to see justice served.

Her son's case is unusual. Thousands of U.S. troops are embedded as advisers in Iraqi units, and there are few incidents of violence against them. Still, with the surge plan calling for many more advisers to train Iraqis and patrol alongside them, some military officials worry they might become targets for rogue elements in the Iraqi military. "Ninety-nine percent of Iraqi security forces are in no way a threat to our transition teams," says Brig. Gen. Dana Pittard, who overseas the work of U.S. advisers. "It's the 1 percent that you always have to be careful of." A scaling back of troops could actually raise the stakes, since advisers who'd remain in Iraq (up to 30,000, according to some drawdown scenarios) would no longer have the comfort of U.S. brigades stationed just down the road. "If you withdraw most of your force and you have 20 or 30 guys embedded with an Iraqi infantry battalion in Balad or someplace else, they're going to be at risk," says retired general Barry McCaffrey (no relation to Patrick), who commanded an infantry division in the 1991 gulf war.

Members of Sergeant McCaffrey's unit say they felt at risk from their first contact with Iraqi troops. Photos of Americans abusing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib had just been published, bringing tensions to the surface. "They could be friends with us in the day and then set up IEDs at night," says Spc. Chris Murphy, who served with McCaffrey. "We had already arrested two of them for doing that." On June 22, McCaffrey Second Lt. Andre Tyson and a third American patrolled alongside three Iraqis near Balad, looking for weapons and bombs. Team members had been on their feet since 3 a.m., and by 10 that morning, the temperature had climbed to 115 degrees. An Iraqi interpreter also on patrol that day told investigators Tyson was trying to operate the radio on McCaffrey's back when both were fired on from behind by one of the Iraqis. Eight bullets entered McCaffrey's torso; Tyson was killed by a round to the head. The shooter and a second Iraqi fled. "I yelled at them but they did not stop," the interpreter said in a sworn statement obtained by NEWSWEEK.

The killings precipitated a change in regulations. Now on patrols, Iraqi troops usually lead, with Americans safeguarding them from behind. Living quarters in most places have been separated. At Baghdad's former ministry of defense, American advisers of the MiTT 2/6 (Military Transition Team, the American name for embedded trainers) share a common wall with Iraqi troops but the Iraqis are allowed to approach the advisers' rooms only after surrendering their weapons. "We're the only MiTT team in Baghdad who live this close to the Iraqis," says Sgt. Eric Radecki, one of the advisers. "There are walls between us but not much. If you set up walls, what you're saying is, 'We don't trust you'." In unguarded moments, that's exactly what some soldiers say. During a recent joint patrol of the 2/6, an American vehicle commander on a Humvee gave his men a premission brief. Turning to the gunner in the turret, he drilled: "Hey, no one comes near the truck. I don't care if it's IA [Iraqi Army] because I don't trust those f---ers either."

Nadia McCaffrey, meanwhile, is determined to make her way to Iraq when her son's killer is put to trial. McCaffrey believes the military deliberately lied about Patrick's death and she wants to make sure judges deal with the case honestly. (Former secretary of the Army Francis Harvey cited "human error" and "a "gap in our report distribution process.") U.S. troops nabbed the alleged shooter in 2005, but a military spokesman in Baghdad said last week a trial is not in the offing. "Several Iraqi eyewitnesses to the murders have disappeared," Lt. Col. Keir Kevin Curry tells NEWSWEEK. And anyway, he says, attending a trial would be too dangerous for an American civilian. But that doesn't deter McCaffrey. "If I have to walk to Iraq, I will," she says. For McCaffrey, it's just another test of will.