Marines on Trial for Haditha Murders Massacre for a Fallen Comrade?

By Ralf Hoppe

Part 2: A World Constantly under Fire


Haditha is in Anbar Province, about 200 kilometers (124 miles) west of Baghdad. The city is spread along the banks of the Euphrates River for about seven or eight kilometers (four or five miles). Two insurgent groups, one consisting of former Baathists and the other allegedly affiliated with al-Qaida, control Haditha, along with several splinter groups.

In late 2003, half a year after the American invasion, when there was still a trace of cautious optimism in the country, some entrepreneurial Haditha citizens even opened up Internet cafes. The cafes have long since shut their doors, their managers intimidated by insurgents, who feared that someone could tip off the Americans by e-mail. Mobile phones don't work and the landline network is also out of commission. By autumn 2005, there was an evening curfew.

Haditha, like the rest of Iraq, was a world constantly under fire. In 2003 and 2004, when the insurgency was just beginning to develop, the cities west of Baghdad -- Ramadi, Fallujah, Hit, Haditha, Karbala -- formed the center of terrorism in Iraq. The region was home to the so-called rat line. Freshly recruited terrorists from Jordan and Syria, known as "rats," could get the supplies and equipment they needed here -- cars, falsified documents, money and weapons.

The Rat Line

The convoy had almost made it home. It was only 10 minutes from the unit's camp, a commandeered two-story, former school administration building, now heavily fortified with sandbags, MG nests and NATO wire. The officers slept two to a room, while the lower-ranking men in the unit were quartered in 10 or 12-bed rooms. When they were off-duty, the men would wash their socks, listen to their iPods and write letters. The plumbing had been broken for some time, and human waste was collected in oil drums. "Shit burning," or incinerating the contents of the drums, was a favored form of punishment.

The men called it "Camp Sparta."

Miguel joined the Marines in the fall of 2003. The US Marines, about 175,000 strong, are an independent division of the armed forces today. Marines tend to take a low-tech approach to fighting. They consider themselves Spartans -- fast, courageous and tough. Marines complete the most difficult training in the US armed forces. They shave every day, even in combat zones, and a Marine will never abandon a fellow soldier. "Semper Fidelis," or "Always Faithful," is their motto.

Marines consider themselves brothers, even if they do not share the same mothers. Mikey Terrazas believed in the Marines' way of life.

In the 1950s, Miguel's grandfather Jorge emigrated from Mexico to El Paso, where he bought a fast-food restaurant called Ben's Tacos and created his own hot sauce that eventually made the place legendary. His son Martin, Miguel's father, took over the restaurant, worked in construction and drove trucks for a living. The Terrazas always believed that they had ended up on the right side of the border. In Mexico, says Martin Terrazas, you'll always be dirt-poor, but you can give your kids a future here in America.

Mikey, he says, joined the Marines out of conviction and because he wanted to fight for his country.

The Marines had been in Anbar Province since March 2004. Nine Marine battalions, or about 9,000 men, were stationed there under the command of Lieutenant General James Conway. The situation was difficult.

There is a dam and power plant on Lake Qadisiyah, north of Haditha. The third battalion, a group of about 800, which included Miguel Terrazas's "Kilo Company," was assigned to guard the area surrounding the dam. The 200 men of Kilo Company were responsible for securing and guarding the city of Haditha. It was the fall of 2005, and it was already Terrazas' third tour of duty in Iraq, which made him a veteran of sorts.

The company's orders were to maintain a presence and keep order. They drove on patrols, set up checkpoints and occasionally conducted raids. They would usually find flyers and weapons, arrest a few people, interrogate them and release them. It all seemed pretty pointless. The letters Mikey wrote home offered a picture of the situation in Haditha at the time: constant attacks, a dogged, deadly game of cat-and-mouse, in which the Marines were often the hunted. The modus operandi of insurgents of all stripes was to attack and then merge into the civilian population of Iraqis, who all looked alike to the Marines.

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