Friday, May 26, 2006

Tarnished Glory: Haditha (updated)

Original Post (May 26)

In late November, many of us here in the United States picked up our newspapers and read a small article about a roadside bomb exploding in Haditha, killing 15 Iraqi civilians and an American soldier, a 20 year old Lance Corporal named Miguel Terrazas from Texas. Like many of us here in the United States, I read this article at the time, briefly pondered how callous these insurgents were to detonate this bomb in a crowd of civilians, and then forgot about the incident.

Fortunately, Time Magazine did not forget about the incident, and after their investigation found that the US military's version did not fit with the evidence they had gathered, they confronted the US military about it in January, prompting an investigation. Here is an excerpt of Time's March 19 article that broke this scandal open:

Eman Waleed, 9, lived in a house 150 yards from the site of the blast, which was strong enough to shatter all the windows in her home. "We heard a big noise that woke us all up," she recalls two months later. "Then we did what we always do when there's an explosion: my father goes into his room with the Koran and prays that the family will be spared any harm." Eman says the rest of the family—her mother, grandfather, grandmother, two brothers, two aunts and two uncles—gathered in the living room. According to military officials familiar with the investigation, the Marines say they came under fire from the direction of the Waleed house immediately after being hit by the ied. A group of Marines headed toward the house. Eman says she "heard a lot of shooting, so none of us went outside. Besides, it was very early, and we were all wearing our nightclothes." When the Marines entered the house, they were shouting in English. "First, they went into my father's room, where he was reading the Koran," she claims, "and we heard shots." According to Eman, the Marines then entered the living room. "I couldn't see their faces very well—only their guns sticking into the doorway. I watched them shoot my grandfather, first in the chest and then in the head. Then they killed my granny." She claims the troops started firing toward the corner of the room where she and her younger brother Abdul Rahman, 8, were hiding; the other adults shielded the children from the bullets but died in the process. Eman says her leg was hit by a piece of metal and Abdul Rahman was shot near his shoulder. "We were lying there, bleeding, and it hurt so much. Afterward, some Iraqi soldiers came. They carried us in their arms. I was crying, shouting 'Why did you do this to our family?' And one Iraqi soldier tells me, 'We didn't do it. The Americans did.'" Time was unable to speak with the only other survivor of the raid, Eman's younger brother, who relatives say is traumatized by the experience. U.S. military officials familiar with the investigation say that after entering the house, the Marines walked into a corridor with closed doors on either side. They thought they heard the clack-clack sound of an AK-47 being racked and readied for fire. (Eman and relatives who were not in the house insist that no guns were there.) Believing they were about to be ambushed, the Marines broke down the two doors simultaneously and fired their weapons. The officials say the military has confirmed that seven people were killed inside the house--including two women and a child. The Marines also reported seeing a man and a woman run out of the house; they gave chase and shot and killed the man. Relatives say the woman, Hiba Abdullah, escaped with her baby.
As the father of two young children myself, I find it very difficult to read this story. I try to imagine my own daughter in the place of little Eman Waleed, try to imagine how she might feel seeing me murdered in front of her eyes, and the kinds of nightmares she would suffer from for years after, as she grows up missing her parents in some distant relative's home.

When I first saw this story, I did not write about it - after all, the Time article had several conflicting sources, and I wanted the US military to complete its investigation before forming my own opinion. The investigation is still going on, however some preliminary results were leaked today, and they are not looking good:

The defense official discussed the matter Friday only on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk publicly about the investigation. He said the evidence found thus far strongly indicated the killings in the insurgent-plagued city of Haditha in the western province of Anbar were unjustified. He cautioned that the probe was not finished.

Once the investigation is completed, perhaps in June, it will be up to a senior Marine commander in Iraq to decide whether to press charges of murder or other violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Three officers from the unit involved — 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, based at Camp Pendleton, Calif. — have been relieved of duty, although officials have not explicitly linked them to the criminal investigation.

To summarize, the Time article presented two versions of the Haditha story: one by some local Haditha residents, and another by the US military. Based on the military's own investigation, the Haditha residents' version of the story seems to be the most accurate.

The US military has many inventions at its disposal, but a time machine is not one of them, and if there was a massacre in Haditha we cannot go back in time to fix it. What is important now is how the investigation is conducted and what is done with the result.

To all the Americans reading this: are you in favor of this alleged massacre of Waleed Eman's family being carried out in your names? If we as a society allow ourselves to brush this incident under the carpet, we are responding with a resounding "YES" to this question. If we brush this incident aside, we become an accessory after the fact: accomplices, cohorts, and co-conspirators, just as guilty as if we were there pulling the trigger for the miscreants. We cannot just turn a blind eye to this sort of heinous act being carried out in our names.

I am glad that the US military is taking this incident seriously and conducting an investigation. While the results of the investigation may be troubling for both ourselves and the Iraqi public, the results of trying to brush it under the carpet it would be worse.

Update (May 30)

Storm clouds are gathering in Washington, according to this article by CNN....

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Some members of Congress have been told to brace for the fallout from potential charges of murder and cover-up stemming from an inquiry into an alleged massacre of Iraqi civilians by U.S. Marines, sources say.
Military investigators strongly suspect that what happened in the western Iraqi city of Haditha last November was a rampage by a small number of Marines who snapped after one of their own was killed by a roadside bomb, the sources told CNN.
Pentagon sources told CNN that at least 24 Iraqis were killed.
Sources told CNN on Monday that the investigation is substantially complete, and that charges -- including murder charges -- could be filed sometime in June. And, sources said, investigators have concluded there was a cover-up -- but won't say if it is limited to the handful of Marines who did the killings.

The pieces are starting to come together. Reading between the lines, it sounds like the military's own investigation has wrapped up, but the findings are so shocking and odious, and so likely to provoke public outrage that they decided to hold off on releasing them for a few days to allow for briefing key members of congress, and allow the Marines and lawmakers some time to figure out how to mitigate the upcoming maelstrom.

Of course, there is very little that can be done to mitigate details trickling out like this excerpt from the LA Times:

Briones said he took pictures of at least 15 bodies before his camera batteries died. He said he then helped other Marines remove the bodies and place them in body bags. He said his worst moment, and one that haunts him to this day, was picking up the body of a young girl who was shot in the head.

"I held her out like this," he said, demonstrating with his arms extended, "but her head was bobbing up and down and the insides fell on my legs."

As he spoke, his mother, Susie Briones, 40, a Hanford community college teacher, who was sitting beside him at the kitchen table, silently wiped away tears.

Earlier she confided to a reporter that her son called frequently from Iraq after he experienced nightmares over the little girl.

"He called me many times," she said, "about carrying this little girl in his hands and her brains splattering on his boots. He'd say, 'Mom, I can't clean my boots. I can't clean my boots. I see her.' "