An Iraqi Shiite soldier, captured along with hundreds of other fighters and targeted by a death squad, is in a rare position among his countrymen — he lived to tell how the bullet intended for his skull missed.
"I saw my daughter in my mind, saying 'father, father,' " Ali Hussein Kadhim, 23, told The New York Times
in an exclusive story about his capture and near-death experience at the hands of Islamic State (ISIS) militants.
In June, Sunni militants with ISIS captured Kadhim while he and other soldiers stationed at Camp Speicher, a former U.S. Army base at Tikrit, were fleeing the base. They were imprisoned at the grounds at a Tikrit palace complex, where Saddam Hussein had once lived.
There, they were separated by sect: Sunnis were allowed to repent for their military service, while Shiites were lined up for firing squads.
Kadhim told The Times he was fourth in line, and blood hit his face from the first firing squad, and that he saw one of the militants holding a video camera.
And while Kadhim was thinking of his daughter, he felt a bullet go by his head — and he "just pretended to be shot" and fell into a trench.
Just a few minutes later, one of the killers waked among the bodies, and saw another man who was still breathing, and another of the militants told him to let the soldier suffer.
"At that point, I had a great will to live," Kadhim said
He stayed until it got dark, and then made it to the nearby Tigris River bank, where he met an injured man, Abbas, who had been shot and thrown into the river to die.
They stayed together for three days, and Kadhim said the badly injured Abbas begged him to tell his story.
Kadhim is now back at his uncle's date orchard, following a harrowing three-week journey through lands held by insurgents. His story was confirmed by a Sunni sheikh who had protected him on his way back and by Abbas' father.
ISIS has claimed to kill some 1,700 Shiite soldiers
in the massacres and are still believed to be holding others at the Tikrit base as hostages.
Aside from Kadhim's capture and escape, his story tells of the failures of the Iraqi military, which the United States trained and created, The New York Times points out.
Kadhim had joined the military only 10 days before ISIS captured Mosul, and he says as ISIS captured Camp Speicher, located in Saddam Hussein's former hometown, the American-trained military officers fled, leaving their troops behind.
"We were alone, so we decided to flee, because there were no officers," Kadhim said. He explained that he and other soldiers left behind their uniforms and changed into civilian clothing, mostly track suits and sandals, and about 3,000 soldiers walked out of the base's front gates.
Ironically, Camp Speicher has never fallen to ISIS, and had the soldiers stayed in place instead of deserting, they would have remained safe.
They had intended to walk to Baghdad, located about 120 miles away, but about 50 ISIS fighters tricked them into thinking they would escort them to Baghdad.
Instead, they were put into trucks and hauled to Tikrit, where over the next three days they were divided by sect and the Shiites were massacred. Human Rights Watch has confirmed 560 to 770 men were killed, but says the numbers may be higher, coming nearer ISIS' claims of 1,700 deaths.
Kadhim and other witnesses claimed Sunnis in Tikrit helped in the mass killing, a claim the Iraqi Parliament says it will investigate. On Tuesday, family members of the missing soldiers stormed Parliament, The Times reports, demanding answers, but lawmakers left the building, and experts worry that Shiites in Iraq will start fighting revenge battles against their Sunni rivals.
Meanwhile, family members are seeking out Kadhim. His testimony has been taken and he's earned his pay for his half-month of military service.
“For now, I am jobless,” he said. “I’m just trying to take care of my orchard.”
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