THULUYA, Iraq -- Two hours before the dawn call to prayer, in a village still shrouded in silence, Sabah Kerbul's executioners arrived. His father carried an AK-47 assault rifle, as did his brother. And with barely a word spoken, they led the man accused by the village of working as an informer for the Americans behind a house girded with fig trees, vineyards and orange groves.
His father raised his rifle and aimed it at his oldest son.
"Sabah didn't try to escape," said Abdullah Ali, a village resident. "He knew he was facing his fate."
The story of what followed is based on interviews with Kerbul's father, brother and five other villagers who said witnesses told them about the events. One shot tore through Kerbul's leg, another his torso, the villagers said. He fell to the ground still breathing, his blood soaking the parched land near the banks of the Tigris River, they said. His father could go no further, and according to some accounts, he collapsed. His other son then fired three times, the villagers said, at least once at his brother's head.
Kerbul, a tall, husky 28-year-old, died.
"It wasn't an easy thing to kill him," his brother Salah said.
In his simple home of cement and cinder blocks, the father, Salem, nervously thumbed black prayer beads this week as he recalled a warning from village residents earlier this month. He insisted his son was not an informer, but he said his protests meant little to a village seething with anger. He recalled their threat was clear: Either he kill his son, or villagers would resort to tribal justice and kill the rest of his family in retaliation for Kerbul's role in a U.S. military operation in the village in June, in which four people were killed.
"I have the heart of a father, and he's my son," Salem said. "Even the prophet Abraham didn't have to kill his son." He dragged on a cigarette. His eyes glimmered with the faint trace of tears. "There was no other choice," he whispered.
In the simmering guerrilla war fought along the Tigris, U.S. officials say they have received a deluge of tips from informants, the intelligence growing since U.S. forces killed former president Saddam Hussein's two sons last week. Acting on the intelligence, soldiers have uncovered surface-to-air missiles, 45,000 sticks of dynamite and caches of small arms and explosives. They have shut down safe houses that sheltered senior Baath Party operatives in the Sunni Muslim region north of Baghdad and ferreted out lieutenants and bodyguards of the fallen Iraqi president, who has eluded a relentless, four-month manhunt.
But a shadowy response has followed, a less-publicized but no less deadly theater of violence in the U.S. occupation. U.S. officials and residents say informers have been killed, shot and attacked with grenades. U.S. officials say they have no numbers on deaths, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the campaign is widespread in a region long a source of support for Hussein's government. The U.S. officials declined to discuss specifics about individual informers and would not say whether Kerbul was one.
Lists of informers have circulated in at least two northern cities, and remnants of the Saddam's Fedayeen militia have vowed in videotaped warnings broadcast on Arab satellite networks that they will fight informers "before we fight the Americans."No Protection From U.S. Troops
The surge of informants has also provoked anger in Sunni Muslim towns along the Tigris. Some residents say informants are drawn to U.S. field commanders' rewards of as little as $20 and as much as $2,500. The informants are occasionally interested in settling their own feuds and grudges with the help of soldiers, the residents said. Others contend that the informers are exploiting access with U.S. officials to emerge as power-brokers in the vacuum that has followed the fall of the government on April 9.
"Time's running out. Something will happen to them very soon," said Maher Saab, 30, in the village of Saniya.
The U.S. military says bluntly it does not have the means to safeguard those providing intelligence. "We're not providing any kind of protection at the local level," said Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the U.S. military commander in Iraq.
In Saniya, where slogans still declare "Long Live Saddam Hussein," Abdel-Hamid Ahmed sat in a well-to-do house along dirt roads and arid fields of rolling hills where sheep graze. He proudly described himself as the first person to greet the invading Americans and ticked off the help he has offered since they arrived, most notably information on saboteurs of electricity wires.
Since then, he said, he has met U.S. soldiers at his house at least once a week, usually for no more than 15 minutes.
"I'm not an informer, but I help explain to the Americans the situation here," he said in a well-kept living room, adorned with a new Toshiba television, a stereo, karaoke machine and 15 vases of plastic flowers.
Ahmed, who works in the mayor's office, was on two lists of informers circulated in the village and in the nearby city of Baiji, 120 miles northwest of Baghdad. Under the heading, "In the name of God, the most merciful and compassionate," each list had about 20 names, and, over the past month, the leaflets were left before dawn on doorsteps and utility posts. On the first list, he was ranked 10th; on the second, he said, he was fourth. He said he told the Americans about two men who distributed the list, and they were arrested.
In the street, some people have heckled him as an agent -- "a grave word," he said. He has not been physically threatened, but a grenade was thrown at another person on the list, Kamil Hatroush, although neither he nor his family was hurt. Ahmed said he carries only a 9mm pistol, eschewing the almost standard AK-47s wielded by most Iraqis in the countryside.
"I'm not scared," Ahmed said, flicking his hand lazily and insisting that only a minority resent those working with the Americans. "If someone wants to kill you, why would they give you a warning first? They would just kill you right away."
Ahmed was kicked out of Baghdad's National Security College in 1983, the training ground for the government's sprawling apparatus of intelligence services. He said the disappointment led him to alcoholism, then part-time work, most recently at the mayor's office, where he earned the equivalent of about $2 a month.
"If the Americans offered me a job in security, I would work with them," he said. "Every person has to plan for the future."
U.S. military officials attribute most of their tips to good will, either out of an informant's desire to eliminate the vestiges of Hussein's rule that are unpopular even in the Sunni Muslim-dominated north, or to end attacks that have unsettled a region still reeling from the government's fall. Maj. Josslyn Aberle, a spokeswoman for the 4th Infantry Division, which is based in Hussein's home town of Tikrit, said only a "very small percentage receive money" and that the U.S. military vets intelligence before acting on it. Ahmed denied seeking money, saying he cooperates for the good of his town.
In Hussein's government, informers were encouraged, paid and protected by the intelligence services, a crucial but despised means of control in 35 years of Baath Party rule. Some residents contend today that at least some people in the new batch of informers -- those willing to defy mounting threats -- have charged protection fees or sold their services as perceived intermediaries with U.S. forces.
Outside Ahmed's house, a group of men sat in a battered white Toyota, as relatives sought an audience with Ahmed for help in getting back a car that was seized by the Americans.
Over the weekend, the family of five men arrested by U.S. forces near their base in Baiji said they gave Ahmed a sheep, worth about $30, to help secure the men's release. He denied it.
In Samarra, about 65 miles north of Baghdad, Abdel-Razzaq Shakr, the brother of the town's mayor, was on another list distributed in the town two weeks ago, with at least six names of suspected informers. Residents said people in the town had gone to Shakr for help with U.S. forces in getting their guns back and to deflect suspicion from friends and relatives.
Shakr acknowledged providing the Americans information on Baathists, but he denied taking money from residents.
"I haven't taken even a cent," said Shakr, 45, who is unemployed. "On the contrary, I want to leave a mark on our town so that our children will thank their fathers for what they did."
A grenade was thrown at his house on July 18. It landed in the courtyard near a tangerine tree, shattering windows but hurting no one. Another person on the list, Mustafa Sadeq Abboudi, was shot in the arm with an AK-47. Shakr said he has a pistol and a rifle, but his brother, Mayor Mahmoud Shakr, has urged him not to seek help from U.S. forces.
"The Americans cannot offer protection," the mayor said. "If the Americans stood outside the door, it would only cause more trouble because it would mean he is definitely working with them."
Sitting in a chair and holding a cup of sweet tea, the mayor expressed frustration. Suspicions have become so common that more than 100 Muslim clerics met last week and issued a statement that not all Iraqis working with U.S. forces should be considered informers. "When ever somebody talks to the Americans," he said, shaking his head, "they think he's an agent."Calls for Revenge
Residents of Thuluya said they had no doubt about Kerbul. After the operation in the village, dubbed Peninsula Strike, a force of 4,000 soldiers rounded up 400 residents and detained them at an air base seven miles north. An informer dressed in desert camouflage with a bag over his head had fingered at least 15 prisoners as they sat under a sweltering sun, their hands bound with plastic. Villagers said they soon recognized his yellow sandals and right thumb, which had been severed above the joint in an accident.
"We started yelling and shouting, 'That's Sabah! That's Sabah!' " said Mohammed Abu Dhua, who was held at the base for seven days and whose brother died of a heart attack during the operation. "We asked his father, 'Why is Sabah doing these things?' "
In the raid, three men and a 15-year-old boy were killed, all believed by villagers to have been innocent. Within days, many focused their ire on Kerbul, who had served a year in prison for impersonating a government official and was believed to have worked as an informer after he was released. Young children in the street recited a rhyme about him: "Masked man, your face is the face of the devil." Calls for revenge -- tempered by the fear of tribal bloodletting getting out of hand -- were heard in many conversations.
Kerbul's family said U.S. forces took him to Tikrit, then three weeks later, he went to stay with relatives across the Tigris in the village of Alim. As soon as word of his release spread, his brother Salah and uncle Suleiman went there to bring him back.
"We sent a message to his family," said Ali, a retired colonel whose brother was among those killed during the operation. "You have to kill your son. If you don't kill him, we will act against your family."
His father appealed, Ali recalled, saying he needed permission from U.S. forces.
"We told him we're not responsible for this," Ali said. "We told him you must kill your son."
Kerbul's body was buried hours after the shooting, his father said, carried to the cemetery in a white Toyota pickup. He said he and Kerbul's brother accompanied the corpse. Salah, his son who fired the fatal shots, said he stayed home.
Neither U.S. military officials in Thuluya nor Tikrit said they were aware of the killing.
"It's justice," said Abu Dhua, sitting at his home near a bend in the Tigris. "In my opinion, he deserves worse than death."