BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Adel Abed Hammed was a skinny 31-year-old so withdrawn he sometimes went days without talking to anybody and would let only his mother touch him.
Mentally ill since childhood, he used to wander the streets of Baghdad alone. One day he chanced on some American soldiers who shot him dead after he took fright at a bullet fired over his head.
"I wouldn't feel such misery if he wasn't so sick but that makes it double for me," said his mother. "He was like a child."
The 62-year-old Baghdad housewife is one of many thousands of Iraqis who are mourning sons and daughters killed in a conflict that has also claimed the lives of 2,000 U.S. troops. Many Iraqis, like Adel, have been killed by American soldiers.
Iraq Body Count, a peace group which counts casualties based on media reports, says on average 38 Iraqis a day die violently. It says at least 26,600 have died since the invasion but the true figure may be higher because many deaths go unreported.
The U.S. military says it does not target civilians or count their deaths. Rebels often attack U.S. checkpoints and patrols. Soldiers are authorised to use lethal force in self-defence.
A report by Iraq Body Count in July said nearly 37 percent of the Iraqi deaths it had recorded were caused by U.S.-led forces, with the rest caused by insurgents and criminal gangs.
According to icasualties.org, a website run by a non-governmental group that tallies U.S. and Iraqi casualties, more than 3,400 Iraqi police and soldiers have been killed in postwar Iraq, including more than 2,100 this year alone.
Behind every statistic is a grieving family.
"He always used to go walking for hours," Adel's mother said, sitting with her husband and two more sons in the living room of the family house in an upscale Baghdad neighbourhood.
"When he came home he used to tell me about what he saw on the road. I used to take him to the bathroom and wash him."
Adel's father, Abed Hammed Abbas, 73, says his son left the house mid-morning, wearing jeans and a shirt, and when he did not come back by nightfall, they began to fear for him.
"I stayed up all night crying, waiting for him outside the house," Adel's mother said, speaking through tears. "I pictured him dead, with blood coming from his face."
The following day a neighbour told them he had seen Adel shot on a highway near their home.
The neighbour, who did not want to be identified, said he was walking home when he saw the U.S. patrol in Humvee armoured vehicles and tanks, stationed on both sides of the road.
"I saw Adel coming walking slowly towards the Americans from the other side. They fired a warning shot over his head. Adel panicked and ran to the other side of the highway.
"He'd just started running when they shot him with a couple of bullets. Then he fell to the ground. Four soldiers approached his body and checked him, then they carried his body to a Humvee and put him inside and took him away."
Adel's father Abed went to the police, who directed him to a hospital. "They told us the Americans brought a person there that was killed and we could find the body in the morgue. We checked it and it was my son, Adel," Abed said.
'SHOT FROM BEHIND'
"We found he was shot from behind, right through the kidneys. The other bullet wound was near the hip," he said.
The Americans had left a "claims card" with details of the incident and how the family could seek compensation. Adel's family has not decided whether to press a claim.
Adel met his death as the eyes of the world were focused on a constitutional referendum and on the trial of Saddam Hussein.
As these events unfolded, Adel's mother received condolence visits from friends and relatives in a mourning ritual that has been repeated day after day in countless homes around Iraq.
Adel's cousin Abdullah Hussain, a doctor, said it should have been clear that Adel was mentally ill. "He was very innocent. Anyone could tell he was ill from the first moment."
"The Americans are spreading terror in Iraq because they are terrified," he added. "These are not the qualities of liberators but criminals."
Adel's older brother Ali said the Americans should leave Iraq. "These rivers of blood should be stopped," he said.