Haditha ‘is My Lai all over again’

At 5 p.m. Nov. 19, near the end of one of the most violent days the Marine Corps had experienced in the Upper Euphrates Valley, a call went out for trucks to collect the bodies of 24 Iraqi civilians.

The unit that arrived in the farming town of Haditha found babies, women and children, shot in the head and chest. An old man in a wheelchair had been shot nine times. A group of girls, ages 1 to 14, lay dead. Everyone had been killed by gunfire, according to death certificates issued later.

The next day, Capt. Jeffrey Pool, a Marine spokesman in Iraq, released a terse statement: Fifteen Iraqis “were killed yesterday from the blast of a roadside bomb in Haditha. Immediately after the bombing, gunmen attacked the convoy with small-arms fire. Iraqi army soldiers and Marines returned fire, killing eight insurgents and wounding another.”

Despite what Marine witnesses saw when they arrived, that official version has been allowed to stand for six months. Who lied about the killings, who knew the truth and what, if anything, they did about it is at the core of one of the potentially most embarrassing and damaging events of the Iraq war, one that some say may surpass the detainee abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib prison.

The Marine Corps is saying only that it would be inappropriate to comment while investigations are underway. But since that Saturday afternoon in November, evidence has been accumulating steadily that the official version was wrong and misleading, and several top officials suspect what happened in Haditha went beyond the usual daily violence in Iraq.

On Nov. 29, the Marine unit in question – Kilo Company of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment – had a memorial service at a Marine base for Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas, a well-liked 20-year-old from El Paso, Texas. He was killed in a roadside bomb explosion that appears to have been the trigger for what looks to investigators like revenge shootings of Iraqi civilians.

Lance Cpl. Roel Ryan Briones said that Terrazas had been “like a brother to me.” Staff Sgt. Travis Fields, Terrazas’s platoon sergeant, called him “a man of heart.” Not long after the bodies were discovered, Maj. Dana Hyatt, a Marine reservist whose job in part was to work with the civilian population when damage was inflicted by the U.S. military, paid out $38,000 in compensation to the families of the 15 dead. The Iraqis received the maximum the United States offers – $2,500 per death, plus a small additional amount for other damage.

Kilo Company did not dwell on what happened Nov. 19. Mike Coffman, who was a Marine Reserve officer in Haditha at the time, recalled that another officer, telling him about the incident, “indicated to me that he thought from the beginning that it was overreaction by the Marines, but he didn’t think anything criminal had occurred.”

When the Haditha city council met in January for the first time in many months, “none of them (Iraqi members) ever raised it as an issue,” said Coffman, who attended the meeting. Rather, he said, they complained about how car and truck traffic in the area had been shut down after two Marines were killed at a checkpoint bombing.

Changes expected

That same month, a top military official arrived in Iraq who would play a key role in the case: Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the new No. 2 military officer in the country. He is an unusual general in today’s Army, with none of the “good old boy” persona seen in many other top commanders. He had praised an article by a British officer that was sharply critical of U.S. officers in Iraq for using tactics that alienated the population. He wanted U.S. forces to operate differently than they had been doing.

Not long after Chiarelli arrived in Baghdad, an Iraqi journalism student gave an Iraqi human rights group a video he had taken in Haditha the day after the incident. It showed the scene at the local morgue and the damage in the houses where the killings took place. The video reached Time magazine, whose reporters began questioning U.S. military officials. Pool, the Marine captain, sent the reporters a dismissive e-mail saying that they were falling for al-Qaida propaganda, the magazine said recently. “I cannot believe you’re buying any of this,” he wrote. Pool declined last week to comment on any aspect of the Haditha incident.

But Army Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a more senior spokesman in Baghdad, notified Chiarelli of the questions. The general’s response to his public affairs office was short: Just brief the Time magazine reporter on the military investigation into the incident that Chiarelli assumed had been conducted.

The surprising word came back: There had been no investigation.

Chiarelli told subordinates in early February he was amazed by that response, according to an Army officer in Iraq. He directed that an inquiry commence as soon as possible. He wanted to know what had happened in Haditha, and also why no investigation had begun.

Stunning revelations

Army Col. Gregory Watt was tapped to start an investigation and by March 9, he told Chiarelli that he had reached two conclusions, according to an Army officer in Iraq.

One was that death certificates showed that the 24 Iraqis who died that day – the 15 the Marines said had died in the bomb blast and others they said were insurgents – had been killed by gunshot rather than a bomb, as the official statement had said. The other was that the Marine Corps had not investigated the deaths, as is the U.S. military’s typical procedure in Iraq, particularly when so many civilians are involved. Individually, either finding would have been disturbing. Together, they were stunning.

On March 10, the findings were given to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Gen. Peter Pace, the first Marine ever to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Rumsfeld told aides that the case promised to be a major problem. He called it “really, really bad – as bad or worse than Abu Ghraib,” recalled one Pentagon official. On March 11, President Bush was informed, according to the White House.

The Marines began their own investigation almost immediately, following up on Watt’s inquiry, but quickly realized that to credibly examine the acts of their top commanders in Iraq, they would need someone outside their service. The Army offered up Maj. Gen. Eldon Bargewell, a career Special Operations officer who first saw combat as a sergeant in the Vietnam War, to look into the matter.

The Marines, who are part of the Navy Department, also turned over the question of criminal acts to agents of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. Notified on March 12, the NCIS immediately sent a team of three Iraq-based investigators to Haditha, one of the most violent areas in Iraq. A few days later, as the scope of the case sank in, it dispatched a team of reinforcements from the United States.

But even then, nothing had been made public about the November event that might have distinguished it from Iraq’s daily bloodshed. Then, on March 19, the Time magazine article appeared. “I watched them shoot my grandfather, first in the chest and then in the head,” the magazine quoted Eman Waleed, 9, as saying. Most of the victims were shot at close range, the director of the local hospital told Time.

Officers relieved of duty

The first public indication that the military was taking those allegations seriously came on April 7, when Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani, a reserved, quietly professional officer from northwestern Colorado, was relieved of command of the 3rd Battalion of the 1st Marines, Kilo Company’s parent unit. Also removed were two of his subordinates – Kilo’s commander, Capt. Luke McConnell, and the commander of another company. Even then, the Marine Corps didn’t specify why the actions were taken, beyond saying that the officers had lost the confidence of their superiors.

Then, on May 17, U.S. Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., let the news slip out. In the middle of a rambling statement at the outset of a news conference on Capitol Hill, he said – almost as an aside – that what happened in Haditha was “much worse than reported in Time magazine.” He asserted that the investigations would reveal that “our troops overreacted because of the pressure on them, and they killed innocent civilians in cold blood.”

The reporters present barely focused on what Murtha had said. When the congressman finished his statement, the first reporter asked about Iraqi security forces. The second asked about U.S. troop withdrawals. The third asked about congressional support for Murtha’s resolution calling for a U.S. pullout from Iraq. Finally, the fourth asked about Haditha.

Murtha responded with a bit more detail: “They actually went into the houses and killed women and children. And there was about twice as many as originally reported by Time.” Even then, his comments captured little attention and were not front-page news.

It took a few days for the horror of what Murtha was talking about to sink in.

“This is just My Lai all over again,” Vaughan Taylor, a former military prosecutor and instructor in criminal law at the Army’s school for military lawyers, said last week. “It’s going to do us enormous damage.”

The facts of the shooting incident seem now to be largely known, with military insiders saying that recent news articles are similar to the internal reports they have received from investigators. But considerable mystery remains about how Marine commanders handled the incident and contributed to what some officials suspect was a coverup.

“The real issue is how far up the chain of command it goes,” said one senior Marine familiar with the case. “Who knew it, and why didn’t they do something about it?”

The Marine Corps still has not corrected its misleading Nov. 20 statement asserting that the Iraqi civilians were killed in a bomb blast. A Marine Corps spokesman didn’t return calls on Friday asking why it had not.

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