An Iraqi victim
Terrorists target those working with Americans
By Henry Schuster
Editor's Note: Henry Schuster, a senior producer in CNN's Investigative Unit, has been covering terrorism for more than a decade. Each week in "Tracking Terror," he reports on the people and organizations driving international and domestic terrorism and efforts to combat those. He is the author of the forthcoming book, "Hunting Eric Rudolph."
(CNN) -- Dan Thomas never expected to have a friend like Riyadh Wahiab Hamad.
But after several months together dodging danger in Iraq, Thomas also didn't expect the news that terrorists had murdered his friend -- presumably for working with Americans.
Chief clerk of the U.S. District Court in north Georgia, Thomas, 58, traveled to Iraq in summer 2003 as part of a group of federal judges and court administrators intent on rebuilding the nation's judiciary.
There, Riyadh was his interpreter, his companion, and his guide to all matters Iraqi. While he spoke the queen's English -- a sharp contrast to Thomas's Kentucky-tinged southern twang -- Riyadh had never been outside Iraq.
For three months, in and around Baghdad, the delegation met with Iraqi lawyers and judges. Sometimes they removed Baathists from positions of power; sometimes they handed out money to keep the system going.
Thomas felt comfortable with Riyadh, sometimes driving him home (against orders) to his wife, five daughters and son. He trusted Riyadh around the money -- or to tell him when things got dicey.
"He had that sixth sense of when danger was present and when we needed to leave," Thomas said.
A sharp sense of humor
An officer in Saddam Hussein's army, Riyadh had a sharp sense of humor and his share of Saddam jokes. By working with the Americans, he hoped to undo some of the damage done by Saddam's regime, according to Thomas.
When it was time for Thomas to leave, Riyadh said, " 'Dan, I'll probably never ever see you again,'" he recalled. "He teared up ... It was an emotional moment for both of us."
Soon after returning to the United States in 2003, Thomas began getting phone calls from Riyadh. They talked about life, work, their families. Riyadh also discussed weighing whether to teach English at one of Baghdad's universities or continue working for the Americans.
Working for the Americans paid more -- a few dollars a day -- but it was enough to support his family.
Riyadh knew the dangers. A year ago, he was waiting in traffic to get inside the U.S.-controlled Green Zone, when a car bomb went off.
All the vehicles in front of his were either destroyed or damaged. His car was unscathed, so he put some of the wounded in his back seat and drove them to the hospital.
Bad news in an e-mail
Riyadh's and Thomas' worlds were growing further apart. And it didn't look like Thomas would be returning to Baghdad, not at least while conditions worsened.
Early this year, Thomas got an e-mail from Baghdad with the news that he'd feared.
"I have bad news. Our great friend Riyadh was murdered in his neighborhood area by the terrorists. God bless his soul."
After I heard from Thomas, my colleague Nic Robertson tracked down Riyadh's family. It was too unsafe to visit their neighborhood, so his oldest daughter and son visited the CNN offices.
Riyadh was murdered 10 days after celebrating his second youngest daughter's birthday, they said.
He left the house a bit late the morning of January 10, carrying a vase for his office. Five minutes from his house, en route to the bus that would take him to the Green Zone, gunmen shot him in the head and mid-section.
By the time Riyadh's family got to the scene, he was dead.
That same day, Baghdad's deputy police chief was assassinated. There was a suicide attack on the police station in Riyadh's neighborhood. Yet another hellish day in Baghdad, like so many others.
Riyadh's friends at the U.S. Embassy, both Iraqi and American, are convinced he was killed for one reason -- working with the Americans.
"Our interpreters and translators get threats on a regular basis, so it's constantly on their mind, which makes what they do for us all the more remarkable," said U.S. diplomat Greg Kehoe.
Although Riyadh was working on high-profile trials, including Saddam Hussein's, Kehoe doesn't think he was targeted for that. Working in the Green Zone was apparently enough for a death warrant.
Riyadh's daughter didn't want her name used or her face shown when Robertson interviewed her, but did want to vent her emotions.
"I'm angry and disappointed. I feel a great deal of rage inside me. I wish I could know who did it and why: just because he was making the connection between the Americans and the Iraqis? Is this his payback?
"I only wish I could look into the face of whoever did this. I don't want revenge or anything. I just want to tell him that he destroyed an entire family."
When I visited Thomas' office, he was on the phone to a colleague in San Francisco, talking about ways to raise money to help Riyadh's wife and six children.
Eight thousand miles from Baghdad, Thomas wonders if he will ever now make it back to Iraq, to meet Riyadh's family.
"This wonderful man, so precise and just the embodiment of everything that's good, is here no more."