The sun sets early in Iraq in December. So, it would have been approaching dusk--calm and eerie--when Dale Stoffel climbed into the passenger seat of his black BMW station wagon at Taji military base outside of Baghdad. He would have held his dull, black Heckler & Koch MP-5 submachine gun tight to his body, the way he always did. The trip back to Baghdad was just 15 miles, but it led through what had become, by December 2004, some of the most dangerous terrain in the world--the Sunni suburbs of Baghdad.
At 43 years old, Stoffel, an American businessman and arms dealer, sported a goatee that gave his grin a mischievous appearance. He probably would have been grinning that day. After all, he believed he had just rescued the biggest business deal of his tumultuous career, one that he thought would not only make him millions but would also help to arm the Iraqi military against the insurgents. It was a deal he believed in with all his heart.
Everyone has heard stories of selfless idealists killed in Iraq. Stoffel was not one of those and probably would not have wanted to be seen that way. He was a self-professed man of action, one who was proudly and openly in Iraq to make a fortune. Still, he supported the war and the promise of a new Middle East and was a solid Republican, an enthusiastic backer of George W. Bush, and a donor to the president's campaigns.
There had been obstacles in Stoffel's way: distractions, false starts, broken promises. There had been encounters with con men, hucksters, and thugs. Stoffel--who'd come to Iraq on the strength of his connections with a circle of Washington lobbyists associated with the invasions eminence grise, Ahmed Chalabi--had recently accused the Iraqi government and American employees of U.S. military contractors of corruption in a massive deal involving military equipment. But he believed his friends in Washington had sorted it all out and that he was going to be paid the millions of dollars he felt he was owed. An Army colonel who saw him that day said he appeared "pleased."
Two days later, Stoffel's car was discovered in a grim neighborhood along the Tigris. The hood was crumpled like a paper bag, the windshield a haze of cracks. The dashboard was covered with blood. Stoffel had been shot repeatedly in the head and upper back. His friend and employee, Joe Wemple, had been shot once through the head.
A mysterious insurgent group has claimed credit for Stoffel's killing; another terrorist group celebrated the murder and called him an American spy. His friends, though, aren't convinced that this was just another act of violence by militants in Iraq, and neither, apparently, is the FBI, which is now investigating his death. In the chaos of Iraq, it's likely that no one will ever know for sure why Dale Stoffel was murdered.
What does become clear, from dozens of interviews with people who knew Stoffel and from documents that detail his work, is that Dale Stoffel's life--and death--was a version, in miniature, of the American occupation itself. His personality, with its mix of idealism, ideology, and self-interest, mirrored those of the senior administration staff and young officials who manned the American headquarters in Iraq. Stoffel and these administration officials shared a belief that they were clever enough, tough enough, and committed enough to impose their will on a dangerous land through the use of key Iraqi insiders. But, in the end, their Iraqi friends used them.
Legit side of a shady world
I had known Stoffel for four years, and I liked him. We had first met in 2000 over a Scotch and a rockfish dinner at the Landini Brothers restaurant in the Old Town section of Alexandria, Va., a self-consciously quaint shopping district across the Potomac River from D.C. where the elite of the defense contracting world meet after work. Stoffel was smoking Cuban cigars with gusto, practically smacking his …