MUQDADIYA, Iraq – When an unmanned U.S. spy plane (search) crashed in a farmer's onion field in central Iraq (search), his first instinct was to bury it.
He was afraid that if he helped the U.S. military recover the aircraft, terrorists in the area might see him as a collaborator and kill him, according to a U.S. soldier involved in the recovery operation.
The circumstances may be unique — after all it's not every day that a plane crashes in one's backyard — but the farmer's dilemma was not. As militants press their violent campaign against the American military presence, Iraqis must often choose whether to risk running afoul of U.S. troops or attack by terrorists. Complicating matters, they don't always know which side their neighbors are on.
U.S. forces lost radio contact with the plane late Tuesday. It wasn't immediately known what caused the crash in Muqdadiya, about 60 miles northeast of Baghdad (search).
The crash set off an intense hunt — not just by American troops. U.S. officials said insurgents were also combing the area for the plane, which was loaded with sensitive observation equipment.
"Some other people were also looking for the (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle), not necessarily friendly people," said Lt. Col. Roger Cloutier of the 3rd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, who commands U.S. soldiers in and around Muqdadiya.
The farmer was aware the search was on. Knowing he could not keep his unwanted treasure a secret long, he sought help from the local governor, Abdullah Hasan Rashid al-Jabouri, the self-declared survivor of 14 assassination attempts by insurgents.
Al-Jabouri suggested the two visit U.S. troops at Camp Normandy, just outside of Muqdadiya, and tell them where the plane was. The farmer agreed.
U.S. soldiers quickly arrived at the crash site and asked the farmer's son about it. The son, unaware his father had asked U.S. forces to come, played dumb, and was detained.
He wasn't held long.
As the farmer, dressed in tribal garb, sat in Cloutier's office late Wednesday, his son, visibly nervous, arrived to a warm welcome, bashfully nodding at soldiers in the room.
"It was a big misunderstanding," Cloutier said apologetically. He said the family had provided assistance "at great peril to themselves."
Al-Jabouri said the farmer did not go to the Iraqi police in Muqdadiya because he feared possible double agents who work with the insurgency.
Cloutier said the farmer's help was "really an indication of the shift of the mind-set of the (Iraqi) people" since the Jan. 30 national elections.
Miles away, U.S. soldiers dug up the destroyed plane.