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

The first verdicts are expected to be handed down soon in a trial that has shocked the United States. The defendants are seven Marines, three of them charged with executing 24 civilians in the Iraqi town of Haditha. The massacre was one of the greatest setbacks in the Americans' battle for hearts and minds in Iraq.

By Ralf Hoppe


The aftermath of the massacre in Haditha.
AP

The aftermath of the massacre in Haditha.

Miguel Terrazas was a private first class, a marksman and a decorated war hero. His dad, who comes to visit his grave every morning, called his son "Mikey."

The Fort Bliss military cemetery in El Paso lies at the foot of the Franklin Mountains. It is shortly after 6 a.m. The mountains are a soft blue in the early, flat light of dawn. The tombstones throw long shadows on the raked soil. A blue metallic pickup truck drives through the main gate and stops. A heavy-set man climbs down from the driver's seat.

Martin Terrazas wears baggy pants and dusty boots. He trudges over to grave J 2145, kneels and lays his hand on the tombstone.

"Hi, son. How are you?" he asks, speaking softly, his eyes closed.

"Your brothers told me to say 'hi,' Mikey. They're okay, don't worry about them. Your aunt, too. She says she misses you. Apart from that, she works a lot. You know what she's like."

He strokes the tombstone. There is a small hollow in the ground for beer. "Mikey, my son, your brother's coming on Sunday. He'll bring along a Corona for you, or maybe donuts if you want that instead. How does that sound?"

Tombstone J 2145 is 62 centimeters tall. Chiseled into the gray stone are the date of birth of Private First Class Miguel Terrazas, Dec. 10, 1984, and the date of his death, Nov. 19, 2005 -- the day a bomb exploded on a dusty street in Iraq. The bomb cost Miguel Terrazas his life, and his death cost 24 Iraqi civilians their lives. All in all, it was a normal morning in Iraq.

A Watershed Moment

But that date, Nov. 19, 2005, caused shockwaves in the United States and triggered a political crisis that continues to divide the nation to this day. Three Marines are on trial for murder in a California military court, and four others are accused of dereliction of duty, lying under oath and obstruction of justice. But there is more to this trial than that. It also touches on the entire fiasco of the Iraq war, the Americans' overestimation of their own strength and Arab hatred.

Verdicts in the trial at Camp Pendleton, where Terrazas was stationed, are expected in the coming weeks. The trial itself is being conducted like a military campaign, with hundreds of prosecutors and defense attorneys, including civilian lawyers, cross-examinations, expert witness testimony and mountains of photographs. It is as if America wanted to prove to itself that what happens in the Iraq war is still governed by laws, and that this war can still be won. The Americans probably lost the real battle long ago -- the battle for the hearts and minds of Iraqis. Indeed, they probably lost it on that Saturday morning in Haditha, Nov. 19, 2005. A US convoy of four Humvees was on patrol that morning on a street on the outskirts of the city. It was shortly after 7 a.m. Miguel Terrazas was driving the fourth vehicle.

Haditha is a small, unattractive and featureless city in central Iraq. Altogether, there were 12 Marines in the four Humvees, under the command of a non-commissioned officer, Sergeant Frank Wuterich, a man with a reputation for being calm and cool. He is athletic, sports a light moustache and has a crumpled-looking face. He resembles the actor Matt Damon. At home, Wuterich has a wife, a daughter and an electric guitar.

The US soldiers were wearing camouflage uniforms, non-reflecting steel helmets, bulletproof vests and motorcycle goggles. Each soldier was carrying the standard-issue weapons: an M15 assault rifle and a nine-millimeter pistol. Some carried concussion grenades and hand grenades.

The convoy turned left off of River Road onto a bumpy street, Shari Sifani or Chestnut Street, as the Americans had renamed it. The street is lined with a smattering of houses, many of them made of bare yellow Haklania stone, which is quarried in the area. This is a pretty good neighborhood by Iraqi standards, but an atavistic nightmare to American eyes. There are no movie theaters, no supermarkets, and there is nothing colorful, pleasant-looking or consumable about the place. The soldiers call the areas outside their bases and Baghdad's Green Zone "Injun Country." The whole town, the whole country in fact is Injun Country.

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