Memories of My Lai Death in Haditha
November 19, 2005 began like many days in Iraq -- with an explosion. By the end of the day, 24 people from Haditha were dead. The US Marines are suspected of having committed the biggest slaughter of civilians at the hands of the US military since the Vietnam War.
Haditha is a small, dusty city on the Euphrates River 200 kilometers (124 miles) northwest of Baghdad, in Iraq's Anbar Province. The primarily Sunni region, dominated by insurgents, is notorious for one, horrific fact: more people die here day after day than anywhere else in the country. The US Marines periodically attempt to crush the insurgency, but end up withdrawing to their bases, the only locations in Iraq where they feel relatively safe. Indeed, US troops lives are in danger the minute they set foot outside their bases.
But the region -- and Haditha -- isn't just dangerous for US soldiers. It is also hazardous for those who live there, primarily for farmers who often fall victim to roadside bombs set by insurgents. Avoiding civilian deaths is not much of a concern. But life in Haditha also becomes perilous when US Marines go on insurgent hunts.
Most of the soldiers in the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment have already spent quite a bit of time in Iraq. Many are already on their second tours of duty with some even on their third -- Haditha isn't the first hellhole with which they've become acquainted. Last summer, 20 Marines were killed during a three-day battle with insurgents -- 14 killed by a roadside bomb and the remaining six, all sharpshooters, shot in an ambush. A normal day in Iraq.
Like so many other days in Haditha, Nov. 19, 2005 began with an explosion. At 7:15 a.m., a convoy of four Marine Humvees was driving slowly down a main thoroughfare in Haditha. This time the bomb was so carefully placed that it hit only one Humvee and not a single civilian. Miguel Terrazas, 20, the driver of one of the Humvees, was killed immediately, while two other soldiers were wounded. None of the remaining troops from the 3rd Battalion was harmed.
A deathly silence over Haditha
For the US forces in Iraq, these kinds of attacks are as unavoidable as they are common in Anbar Province. According to the results of a preliminary investigation commissioned by the US military, however, the incident on the morning of Nov. 19, 2005 led to the biggest war crime US soldiers have committed since Vietnam -- nothing less than an Iraqi My Lai. It was a massacre of the innocent, of children, women and unarmed men that even overshadows Abu Ghraib, the definitive example of barbaric prison abuse in Iraq.
Twenty-four people died in Haditha that day. An old man was killed in a wheelchair and mothers tried unsuccessfully to protect their children. The only survivors were a teenager who ran away and a girl who pretended to be dead.
After the roadside bomb detonated, a deathly silence must have fallen over Haditha. The Marines' first step was likely to recover the dead and the two wounded in the attack, while neighboring residents watched from their brick houses and small, palm tree-lined courtyards. To onlookers, the Marines standing around the burned-out Humvee seemed as if they were in shock. According to eyewitnesses, one of the Marines suddenly yelled something and the group sprang into action.
They spent the next four hours terrorizing Haditha, randomly killing anyone unlucky enough to cross their paths. This, at least, is how news magazine Time reconstructed the incidents.
The Marines first forced their way into the house of Abd al-Hamid Hassan Ali, a diabetic who had been confined to a wheelchair after his leg was amputated. Others in his house included his wife, 66, two middle-aged men, the couple's daughter-in-law and four small children between two months and eight years of age. The daughter-in-law managed to flee with the baby. The old man was found with nine gunshots to his chest and abdomen, his entrails spilling from a gaping wound in his back.
The Marines then broke into the neighboring house, shooting at close range and throwing hand grenades into the kitchen and bathroom. A married couple, 43 and 41 years of age, the wife's sister and five children between the ages of 3 and 14 were killed. Thirteen-year-old Safe Junis Salim survived when her dying mother fell on top of her and she lost consciousness, presumably leading the Marines to think that she was dead.
In a third house, the Marines killed four brothers. The last civilians killed on this day in Haditha were four students and a taxi driver who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. The four students were in the taxi on their way home for the weekend. The taxi driver, probably sensing something was amiss, quickly put the car in reverse, but it was too late. The last five victims of the massacre died in much the same way as the others.
Only a few days ago, US President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair publicly conceded that their two countries had made many mistakes in Iraq. In his speech, the US president symbolically mentioned Abu Ghraib, the site of gruesome excesses committed by American soldiers. But if accusations prove to be true, Haditha would represent an even more serious act of barbarism -- a systematic murder of the innocent motivated by revenge.
Haditha will then be on par with the infamous My Lai incident. Five hundred and four Vietnamese civilians were killed on March 16, 1968 in a massacre committed by soldiers in the 11th Infantry Brigade, under the command of Lt. William Calley. It took almost two years before Life magazine first reported on the atrocities that took place in the village on the border with North Vietnam -- finally breaking the cloak of silence the US military had placed over My Lai.
Immediately prior to indications of a massacre in Haditha being made public, Iraq had just experienced a tiny flash of hope. It had taken five gut-wrenching months for the Iraqis to finally assemble a new government under President Nuri al-Maliki. In addition, the United States and Iran were cautiously moving toward the possibility of talks to address ways to achieve long-term peace in Iraq -- considered a confidence-building exercise in preparation for possible negotiations over Tehran's nuclear program.
"Such incidents are devatating"
But the Haditha incident has destroyed much of any progress made in the region. Haditha reinforced widespread suspicion that the US is not only capable of atrocities, but also that it does its best to cover them up. Should it come to an investigation, each case is merely declared an isolated incident. Haditha weakens America and is likely to bolster already staunch opposition to the now-unpopular US president's war. "Such incidents are devastating," says Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Ambassador to Iraq, in an interview with SPIEGEL. Arab networks Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya have reported extensively on Haditha and its consequences.
The news of the massacre was met with dismay within the Washington political establishment. John Warner, a well-respected, elderly Republican senator from Virginia, was the first to mention Haditha in the same breath as Abu Ghraib. Warner, the head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which held hearings over the four-hour Nov. 19 rampage in Haditha, posed a critical question: "What was the reaction of the Marine Corps when it happened?"
John Murtha, highly decorated from his days as a Marine infantryman in the Vietnam War and now a Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania, has no doubts whatsoever that the Marines killed innocent civilians and then tried to cover up the incidents. He says that official sources have told him that the soldiers "cold-bloodedly" shot a woman who had bent over her child in a protective position and begged the Marines for mercy. Murtha is especially interested in finding out whether Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Peter Pace "gave the order to cover up the affair."
Fittingly enough, the new Iraqi ambassador, Samir Sumaidaie, presented his credentials at the White House last Tuesday. He then gave his first interview to CNN, calling the murders "a betrayal of the American people."
After the massacre, the city's imams and tribal leaders led a protest march from the mosque to the US base, where the clerics reminded the Americans that they had "promised to bring the country peace and security, and not panic, fear and terror." The Iraqis were told that the murderous rampage had been a mistake.
Reaching the public eye
Instead of launching their own investigation, the Marines tried to cover their tracks. Their official version of the incident has the 24 civilians being killed by insurgents and not by US troops. According to a communiqué issued on Nov. 20, Lance Cpl. Terrazas and 15 Iraqi civilians were initially killed by the roadside bomb, while the remaining nine victims died during an ensuing firefight with snipers.
The families of most of the victims each received $2,500, the maximum amount of compensation allowed under Marine regulations. The payments represented an initial acknowledgment that Haditha was more than just an ordinary attack with a high, but not unusual number of victims.
On the day after the Haditha massacre, Tahir Thabit, a journalism student, filmed videotape of the dead in the city's morgue, setting a process into motion that would eventually bring the affair before the public eye. US magazine Time obtained Thabit's video in January and sent a copy to Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, who launched a formal investigation. In March, the magazine published a story that refuted the Marines' official version. After interviewing 28 eyewitnesses in Haditha, the Time reporters reconstructed the events of Nov. 19.
Thabit's video has since become widely available in the Middle East, with copies turning up in mosques in Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Terrorist organization Al Qaida's far-reaching network presumably played a role in ensuring discreet distribution of the tape.
Col. Gregory Watt began questioning the 13 Marines in February. Although the Marines stood by their version of the 24 victims having been killed by the roadside bomb and in the ensuing exchange of gunfire, the facts point to a different story. The strongest piece of evidence to refute the Marines' version was the death of the four students and their taxi driver. The five victims were not carrying weapons, nor had they made any threatening moves against the soldiers.
"Something in my head and heart"
US military investigators examined the crime scenes a total of 15 times. Dozens of bullet holes peppered the walls of the three houses. Bullets had passed completely through the victims' bodies, indicating that they were shot at close range. In addition, new photos of the corpses materialized that had apparently been deliberately kept under wraps.
The Marines' version of the incident fell apart when the investigators reconstructed the massacre. The principal suspects include Sgt. Frank Wuterich, who led the patrol, and two privates. All three will likely face murder charges. Nine of the 13 Marines probably witnessed what happened in Haditha, but failed to intervene.
The battalion commander, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani, and two other officers suspected of trying to cover up the killings have since been relieved of their commands. Chessani also apparently gave the order to compensate the victims' families. Under Marine regulations, cash compensation can only be paid when innocent people are killed.
Lance Cpl. Ryan Briones, 21, was a member of the Third Battalion and was stationed in Haditha, but he is not one of the suspects in the massacre. Instead, Briones was assigned to recover the bodies of the dead. Miguel Terrazas was his friend and the two had been workout partners at the unit's gym. Briones covered his friend's body with a poncho and said a prayer. A short time later, he says, he picked up the body of a young girl who had died from a gunshot to her head. Brain matter dripped onto Briones' boots as he held the girl.
Briones will probably never forget these images. "This left something in my head and heart," he says.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan