What happened one November morning in a dusty Iraqi town threatens to become one of the war's major debacles, an alleged atrocity committed by a small group of Marines that promises to haunt the hearts and minds of liberator and liberated alike
By MICHAEL DUFFY, TIM MCGIRK, APARISM GHOSH
Posted Sunday, Jun 4, 2006
Who knows how long it will be before the world knows precisely what happened along Haditha's Hay al-Sinnai Road on the morning of Nov. 19, when 24 Iraqis, almost all of them unarmed, died during a five-hour encounter with a Marine Corps patrol. The incident, first reported by TIME in March, has sparked two major military investigations--one into the possibility that the Marines deliberately murdered unarmed Iraqis and another into a possible cover-up that followed. It has flung open the door to reports, some real, others already discredited, of other civilians being targeted in battle. And it led in part to the startling charge by the Iraqi Prime Minister that such attacks have become a "regular occurrence." Once again, the Bush Administration finds itself on the defensive about a war that is now entering its 40th unrelenting month.
What happened in Haditha has the makings of one of those turning points in a military operation. This one freed a nation from dictatorship, then left Iraq on the verge of anarchy and now looks to many Americans to have been wrong from the start. The crisis has erupted at a distinctly inopportune time, with the Administration trying to reduce the size of the U.S. presence in Iraq, even as military commanders are reporting backsliding in places as diverse as Ramadi in Anbar province and Basra in the south. "We are in trouble in Iraq," says retired Army General Barry McCaffrey, who was recently invited to the White House to share that assessment with President George W. Bush. "Our forces can't sustain this pace, and I'm afraid the American people are walking away from this war." Haditha may accelerate that gait. Like the Abu Ghraib prison scandal before it, Haditha threatens to become one of the war's signature debacles, an alleged atrocity committed by a small group of service members that comes to symbolize the enterprise's larger costs. To some U.S. officers, the impact of the daily stream of accusations about the actions of the men of Kilo Company is conjuring comparisons with the blow from the country's most searing example of battlefield misconduct, the My Lai massacre of 1968, in which U.S. soldiers slaughtered more than 500 Vietnamese. "I worry the combination of Abu Ghraib and Haditha will be the My Lai of this generation," says a senior officer who served in Iraq. "Not because Haditha compares to My Lai, but the perception will be that the military is losing the respect of the American people whom we serve."
Whether that trust can be restored depends on what investigators uncover about the Haditha affair and how the military handles the matter going forward. A knowledgeable congressional source monitoring the Haditha probes says congressional aides are being told by Marine officers in the Pentagon that the number of Marines who may be charged with murder is small. But the source speculates that the total number who may be charged with crimes ranging from murder to aiding in the attack or trying to cover it up could be as high as 10, according to Marines who have talked to officials at the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), which is conducting the inquiry into the killings. Partial findings from the other investigation, into how the Marines' chain of command dealt with the Haditha killings, conducted by Army Major General Eldon Bargewell, were delivered to Pentagon officials last week. Marine Corps officials expect Bargewell, a highly respected member of the Army's special-operations fraternity, to conclude that Marine commanders knew within a few days of the incident that the official account was inaccurate but neglected to investigate the matter further.
The criminal investigation, which will probably produce charges against Marines for committing slayings, is expected to extend into the summer. Three months after TIME published the first account of the incident, new details about the events leading up to the fateful morning in Haditha have shed light on why a small group of Marines apparently abandoned all semblance of self-restraint in a deadly burst of vengeance. But other questions are likely to remain--about who bears ultimate responsibility for the killings, about other possible incidents of military misconduct in Iraq and about whether the U.S. can do anything to stop Haditha from happening again.
HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?
One of the biggest miscalculations of the Iraq war--maybe the biggest--was that the U.S. invaded Iraq with a force large enough to topple a government in 21 days but too small to maintain order in a nation of 26 million with deep ethnic divisions. That strategic decision had tactical consequences, and they can be seen in the record of Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines. Late last year, U.S. commanders tried to hold Haditha, a town of 90,000 riddled with insurgents, at times with just one company of 160 men. The job fell to Kilo, which had already seen some of the ugliest fighting in the postinvasion period. According to Lucian Read--a freelance photographer who has spent 13 months in Iraq, five of them with Kilo Company--Kilo had drawn a short stick in the battle for Fallujah in 2004, enduring days of street-to-street and sometimes house-to-house fighting. During an operation that came to be known as Hell House, a Kilo unit was ambushed inside a house by half a dozen insurgents armed with machine guns and grenades; one Marine died, and several others were wounded. Trapped inside, with the enemy in the adjoining rooms, the Marines finally blew the house up in order to kill the insurgents and make their escape.
After pulling out of Fallujah, Kilo returned home, but by last summer it was gearing up for another tour in Iraq. The unit remained about 65% intact from the year before. In October it moved as part of a roughly 900-man Marine battalion into Haditha, a Euphrates River--valley farm town that had been in insurgents' hands for half a year. At first, the Marines encountered almost no resistance. According to Read, Kilo took up residence in a municipal building as other Marine companies spread out around town. But over time, the other units were called to duty elsewhere, and Kilo was left to pacify the city on its own. During its daily weapons sweeps and vehicle checks, the unit found dozens of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) rigged to blow up all over town. The insurgents grew bolder: Marines on patrol would go around a corner and then come back an hour later and find two IEDs in a trash can. Read told TIME that Kilo was well led in Fallujah and Haditha. But he says Marine squads sometimes went on patrol without an officer because there were not enough officers to go around.
Read, 31, reports that Kilo was the "most human" of the numerous units he was embedded with. "They were never abusive," he said. "There was a certain amount of antagonism and frustration when people didn't cooperate. But it's not like they had KILL 'EM ALL spray-painted on the walls." Most of Kilo's members had at least one Iraqi tour under their belt, Read noted; several had two, and one was working on his third.
What is impossible to know is whether the same lengthy experience that made the Marines more attuned to the challenges of fighting in Iraq also made them more prone to snap if provoked. As TIME reported in March, a 13-man Kilo unit was on patrol in a residential part of Haditha on Nov. 19 when its convoy of four humvees was attacked by an IED. The explosion killed Miguel Terrazas, 20, a beloved member of the unit, who was driving the fourth humvee. Terrazas had a record of being cool under fire. His brother Martin reports that Terrazas once earned a letter of commendation for singling out--and killing--a bombmaking insurgent in a roomful of sleeping children. Another time, from a distance of about 200 yards, he killed an insurgent armed with an AK-47 who was standing next to a boy about age 4. "He was a great shot," says Martin, "and he had good judgment."
The mystery of Haditha hinges on whether the others in the unit showed the same kind of sound judgment after Terrazas was killed. As the IED exploded, a taxi carrying five men rolled past the Marine convoy. The taxi stopped, and the men inside got out. The Marines, who suspected that the men were spotters for the IED, ordered them to lie on the ground. When they ran instead, the Marines shot and killed them. The unit then swept through four nearby houses, and in the space of the next few hours, killed 19 more people, only one of whom was armed. Among the dead were five women and four children. Could the death of an adored comrade have been enough to turn a few well-trained Marines into cold-blooded murderers? James Crossan, a Marine who was injured by the blast that killed Terrazas, told ABC News, "I can understand because we are pretty much like one family, and when your teammates do get injured and killed, you are going to get pissed off and just rage."
A team of investigators from NCIS has already spent weeks in Haditha unraveling the events of Nov. 19. Khaled Raseef, a spokesman for the victims' relatives and an uncle of some of the children who were killed, says the NCIS agents have visited the houses attacked by the Marines 15 times, taken survivors to one of the homes and performed a re-enactment of the unit's movements. A U.S. military source in Iraq told TIME that investigators have placed the noncommissioned officer in charge of the unit that day, Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich, 26, in at least two of the houses where the Marines killed Iraqis. Wuterich, who is based at California's Camp Pendleton, the vast Marine base north of San Diego, has not been relieved of duty, say military officials. His lawyer did not return telephone calls.
A separate team of investigators, meanwhile, is focusing on official deception: Did officers in Kilo Company--or further up the chain of command--cover up what happened that day? A Marine communiqué on Nov. 20 claimed that 15 Iraqi civilians had been killed, as Terrazas was, by the IED and that gunmen afterward opened fire on the Marines, who then killed eight insurgents. Only after Iraqi complaints of an atrocity were brought to the military's attention by TIME did the Marines acknowledge that all the Iraqis had died from gunfire. The Marines on April 7 removed two officers in the chain of command--the captain who led Kilo Company and his battalion commander. The corps is braced for the possibility that Bargewell's probe could go further up the command roster.
Despite the material documenting the carnage of that November morning, proving that the Marines deliberately killed civilians will be a challenge. TIME reported last week that in addition to a videotape made by an enterprising journalism student in the neighborhood the day after the shootings, investigators have found real-time photographs taken by a Marine on patrol the day of the incident. There may also be surveillance tape taken by a military drone that was operating in the area. But prosecuting a criminal case in a court-martial won't be simple. More than six months have passed since the shootings, a lapse of time that defense lawyers will argue has given accusers a chance to alter or coordinate their stories. And there is the question of whether forensics evidence can be obtained that would help the prosecutors prove a charge of premeditated murder. Investigators have asked to exhume the bodies of victims, but families have so far refused. Muslims generally frown on disturbing interred bodies, although some Islamic scholars say exhumation is permissible if it would lead to truth and justice.
CAN IT HAPPEN AGAIN?
With the Haditha revelations threatening to fuel antipathy toward U.S. troops, military officials have fanned out across Iraq to rerun all the old drills about rules of engagement for Marine Corps and Army units. Marine Corps rules of engagement require personnel on patrol to follow a four-step procedure to distinguish friend from foe. It's an easy mnemonic: Shout. Show. Shove. Shoot. Marines are trained to stop a suspicious Iraqi at a safe distance of about 400 meters with a shout or a gesture. If that does not work, they should make a show of force with a rifle. If that fails, they should fire a warning shot across the suspect's path. Then they should shoot to kill, if all else fails. That works when there is time for such a deliberate response. But sometimes emotions take over. An Army officer in Iraq put it this way: "We have been here for nearly six months, no days off, 24 hours a day and getting shot at or blown up every day. And when you go to a house where you are pretty certain the people [there] know [where the bad guys are]--it is their neighbor or brother--and they say they don't know anything ... it upsets you. Especially when you have just lost someone. I had it happen to me this morning--went to a house and asked about the guy who I know lives next door. Never heard of him. Makes you want to punch his lights out. But that doesn't help either."
Pentagon officials hinted to reporters that they were braced for a rash of other reports of hostile fire by American units on Iraqi civilians. Marine officials tell TIME that they receive on average one complaint a day from Iraqis about U.S. missions that have gone awry. Most don't check out; the military concluded last week that as many as 13 civilians in Ishaqi had not been deliberately killed by U.S. forces in March but rather had died accidentally when a house harboring an insurgent had been demolished. But other accusations do hold up. According to a military source, charges will probably be brought against seven Marines and one Navy sailor for killing an Iraqi civilian in April in the town of Hamandiyah and trying to make the death look like the result of a roadside bomb.
The killings in Haditha and elsewhere have rocked the tightly knit 180,000-member Marine Corps. The Marines are by far the smallest uniformed service and think of themselves as an élite apart from the others. Former Marines across the country took the news of Haditha particularly hard, suggesting on radio call-in shows that if the allegations are true, the men are simply not real Marines. The Marines went into Iraq with deliberate plans to win the hearts and minds of Iraqis, telling the locals they would find "no better friend" if they cooperated but "no worse enemy" if they did not. Seth Jones, a Rand counterinsurgency analyst, finds the involvement of the Marines in the scandal disturbing. "They have tended to be better able to understand counterinsurgency tactics and the importance of winning popular support--and not just kinetic operations," he says.
At some point, the demands of waging a long, hot guerrilla war with no end in sight can wear down the very best warrior. Military sociologists who have studied soldiers in battle say incidents such as what allegedly happened at Haditha tend to increase as insurgencies go on. Charles Moskos, one of the nation's leading experts on military personnel, said the nature of the Iraqi insurgency, particularly as it enters its fourth year, makes it difficult for soldiers to distinguish friend from foe. "There is a guerrilla group that is being supported by the local populace, and that makes the innocent civilians viewed as part of the bad guys. In these situations of extreme stress, one can lose one's moral balance," says Moskos.
Pentagon personnel managers have tried to increase the length of time between deployments--most soldiers get 20 months between tours. Pentagon officials say Army units deploy to Iraq for a year and Marines ship out for six months, but units from both services have been known to stay in Iraq longer. Says an Army general: "Are they stressed? Yes. Will it get worse? Yes. Is it affecting their combat ability? Not yet."
Haditha has become one of those Rorschachs of war--a test that makes those who favor a pullout sure that the time for it has come and an episode that makes those who want to stay the course note that the events of Nov. 19 are the exception and not the rule. At least one thing has changed. The Marines in Haditha have become more restrained, slower to fire their weapons, residents say. But something else has not. Marines continue to patrol the neighborhoods, and there are convoys of humvees rolling down Hay al-Sinnai Road practically every day. [This article contains a complex diagram. Please see a hard copy or pdf.] The Incident .. At 7:15 a.m. on Nov. 19, 2005, a roadside bomb exploded in Haditha, killing Lance Corporal Miguel Terrazas. That night, U.S. Marines took the bodies of 24 Iraqis to a local hospital. What happened that day: Bomb explodes under last humvee in convoy. Marines originally reported they immediately came under fire from surrounding buildings
TAXI HUMVEE CONVOY
To central Haditha
Movement of Marines
Hay al-Sinnai Road
Al-Subhani Neighborhood Taxi Four teens and driver killed
Waleed house Seven killed, including three women
Younis house Eight killed, including two women and four children
Later raids Ayed houses (father and son) Marines leave 10 to 15 women and children under guard and move on to adjoining house, where four men are killed.
... And Its Aftermath
THE DAY AFTER
Nov. 20, 2005: U.S. Marines spokesman Captain Jeffrey Pool issues the military's first official report on the incident, noting that "a U.S. Marine and 15 Iraqi civilians were killed yesterday from the blast of a roadside bomb." The same day, Haditha journalism student Taher Thabet videotapes the scene at the homes where the killings had occurred and at the local morgue
December 2005: The U.S. military pays $2,500 per victim to families of 15 of the dead Iraqis. A U.S. officer, Major Dana Hyatt, later confirms he gave out a total of $38,000
January 2006: TIME's Tim McGirk obtains a copy of Thabet's videotape from the Hammurabi human-rights group
Feb. 10, 2006: After gathering witnesses' reports, TIME presents Iraqi accounts of the killings to Colonel Barry Johnson, chief military spokesman in Baghdad
Feb. 14, 2006: Lieut. General Peter Chiarelli, commander of U.S.-led forces in Iraq, orders a preliminary investigation by Gregory Watt, an Army colonel in Baghdad
March 3, 2006: Watt concludes that the Marines may have acted inappropriately. He recommends a further investigation
March 10, 2006: Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Peter Pace are told about the incident
March 11, 2006: The President is told about the killings
March 13, 2006: A Naval Criminal Investigative Service team arrives in Haditha to open an investigation. Marines begin briefing members of Congress about the probe
March 19, 2006: After being given a briefing on the military's probe, TIME publishes its investigation into the Haditha killings on TIME.com The next day, the article appears in the March 27, 2006, issue of TIME
March 19, 2006: Chiarelli assigns Major General Eldon Bargewell to investigate the Marines' reporting of information about the incident up the chain of command
April 7, 2006: Three Marine officers are relieved of their command, in part because of actions that may have been related to the Haditha incident
May 17, 2006: Congressman John Murtha, left, briefed on the results of the ongoing internal investigation, says the information demonstrates that U.S. troops killed innocent civilians "in cold blood"
May 31, 2006: Bush promises a full investigation
June 1, 2006: The Iraqi government announces it will launch its own investigation into the incident
The Chain Of Command
One focus of the investigation is how superior officers reacted to the killings at Haditha by members of Kilo Company of the 3rd Marine Battalion. Here's an overview of how the corps is set up:
The Ranks From lowest to highest:
Private Private First Class Lance Corporal Corporal Noncommissioned officers
Sergeant Staff Sergeant Gunnery Sergeant Master Sergeant* First Sergeant* Master Gunnery Sergeant* Sergeant Major* Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps (1)
Warrant officers (2) Chief Warrant Officer 1 to 5
Commissioned officers Second Lieutenant First Lieutenant Captain Major Lieutenant Colonel Colonel Brigadier General Major General Lieutenant General General
Where Kilo Company Fits How Marine fighting units are organized: SQUAD A sergeant leading a dozen Marines with ranks of private first class, lance corporal or corporal PART OF. . .
PLATOON Three squads led by a lieutenant PART OF. . .
COMPANY A group of platoons, commanded by a captain or lieutenant. Kilo is led by a captain
PART OF. . . BATTALION Kilo is one of five companies making up the 3rd Marine Battalion, which is led by a lieutenant colonel
PART OF. . . REGIMENT Four battalions make up the 1st Marine Regiment, which is commanded by a colonel
PART OF. . .
DIVISION Four regiments and seven other units make up the 1st Marine Division, which is led by a major general *The same grade; title depends on specific responsibilities
(1)The senior enlisted Marine of the entire Corps, picked by the Commandant of the Marine Corps
(2) A technical specialist with extensive knowledge of and training with systems or equipment that is beyond the duties of general officers or other personnel. There are five successive grades Sources: U.S. Marine Corps; GlobalSecurity.org satellite image from Digital Globe via Google Earth TIME Graphic by Jackson Dykman and Joe Lertola; timeline by Jeremy Caplan
With reporting by James Carney, Romesh Ratnesar, SALLY B. DONNELLY, DOUGLAS WALLER/WASHINGTON, MARK THOMPSON, Jeremy Caplan, Brian Bennett, With reporting by Christopher Allbritton/Baghdad, Nathan Thornburgh/New York, Adam Pitluk/El Paso