Sunday, Mar. 19, 2006
One Morning in Haditha
Last November, U.S. Marines killed 15 Iraqi civilians in their homes. Was it self-defense, an accident or cold-blooded revenge? A Time exclusive
By TIM MCGIRK / BAGHDAD
The incident seemed like so many others from this war, the kind of tragedy that has become numbingly routine amid the daily reports of violence in Iraq. On the morning of Nov. 19, 2005, a roadside bomb struck a humvee carrying Marines from Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, on a road near Haditha, a restive town in western Iraq. The bomb killed Lance Corporal Miguel (T.J.) Terrazas, 20, from El Paso, Texas. The next day a Marine communique from Camp Blue Diamond in Ramadi reported that Terrazas and 15 Iraqi civilians were killed by the blast and that "gunmen attacked the convoy with small-arms fire," prompting the Marines to return fire, killing eight insurgents and wounding one other. The Marines from Kilo Company held a memorial service for Terrazas at their camp in Haditha. They wrote messages like "T.J., you were a great friend. I'm going to miss seeing you around" on smooth stones and piled them in a funeral mound. And the war moved on.
But the details of what happened that morning in Haditha are more disturbing, disputed and horrific than the military initially reported. According to eyewitnesses and local officials interviewed over the past 10 weeks, the civilians who died in Haditha on Nov. 19 were killed not by a roadside bomb but by the Marines themselves, who went on a rampage in the village after the attack, killing 15 unarmed Iraqis in their homes, including seven women and three children. Human-rights activists say that if the accusations are true, the incident ranks as the worst case of deliberate killing of Iraqi civilians by U.S. service members since the war began.
In January, after Time presented military officials in Baghdad with the Iraqis' accounts of the Marines' actions, the U.S. opened its own investigation, interviewing 28 people, including the Marines, the families of the victims and local doctors. According to military officials, the inquiry acknowledged that, contrary to the military's initial report, the 15 civilians killed on Nov. 19 died at the hands of the Marines, not the insurgents. The military announced last week that the matter has been handed over to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (ncis), which will conduct a criminal investigation to determine whether the troops broke the laws of war by deliberately targeting civilians. Lieut. Colonel Michelle Martin-Hing, spokeswoman for the Multi-National Force-Iraq, told Time the involvement of the ncis does not mean that a crime occurred. And she says the fault for the civilian deaths lies squarely with the insurgents, who "placed noncombatants in the line of fire as the Marines responded to defend themselves."
Because the incident is officially under investigation, members of the Marine unit that was in Haditha on Nov. 19 are not allowed to speak with reporters. But the military's own reconstruction of events and the accounts of town residents interviewed by Time—including six whose family members were killed that day—paint a picture of a devastatingly violent response by a group of U.S. troops who had lost one of their own to a deadly insurgent attack and believed they were under fire. Time obtained a videotape that purports to show the aftermath of the Marines' assault and provides graphic documentation of its human toll. What happened in Haditha is a reminder of the horrors faced by civilians caught in the middle of war—and what war can do to the people who fight it.
Here's what all participants agree on: at around 7:15 a.m. on Nov. 19, a U.S. humvee was struck by a powerful improvised explosive device (ied) attached to a large propane canister, triggered by remote control. The bomb killed Terrazas, who was driving, and injured two other Marines. For U.S. troops, Haditha, set among date-palm groves along the Euphrates River, was inhospitable territory; every day the Marines found scores of bombs buried in the dirt roads near their base. 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.
According to military officials, the Marines say they then started taking fire from the direction of a second house, prompting them to break down the door of that house and throw in a grenade, blowing up a propane tank in the kitchen. The Marines then began firing, killing eight residents—including the owner, his wife, the owner's sister, a 2-year-old son and three young daughters.
The Marines raided a third house, which belongs to a man named Ahmed Ayed. One of Ahmed's five sons, Yousif, who lived in a house next door, told Time that after hearing a prolonged burst of gunfire from his father's house, he rushed over. Iraqi soldiers keeping watch in the garden prevented him from going in. "They told me, 'There's nothing you can do. Don't come closer, or the Americans will kill you too.' The Americans didn't let anybody into the house until 6:30 the next morning." Ayed says that by then the bodies were gone; all the dead had been zipped into U.S. body bags and taken by Marines to a local hospital morgue. "But we could tell from the blood tracks across the floor what happened," Ayed claims. "The Americans gathered my four brothers and took them inside my father's bedroom, to a closet. They killed them inside the closet."
The military has a different account of what transpired. According to officials familiar with the investigation, the Marines broke into the third house and found a group of 10 to 15 women and children. The troops say they left one Marine to guard that house and pushed on to the house next door, where they found four men, one of whom was wielding an AK-47. A second seemed to be reaching into a wardrobe for another weapon, the officials say. The Marines shot both men dead; the military's initial report does not specify how the other two men died. The Marines deny that any of the men were killed in the closet, which they say is too small to fit one adult male, much less four. According to the military officials, the series of raids took five hours and left at least 23 people dead. In all, two AK-47s were discovered. The military has classified the 15 victims in the first two houses as noncombatants. It considers the four men killed in the fourth house, as well as four youths killed by the Marines near the site of the roadside bombing, as enemy fighters. The question facing naval detectives is whether the Marines' killing of 15 noncombatants was an act of legitimate self-defense or negligent homicide. Military sources say that if the ncis finds evidence of wrongdoing, U.S. commanders in Iraq will decide whether to pursue legal action against the Marines.
The available evidence does not provide conclusive proof that the Marines deliberately killed innocents in Haditha. But the accounts of human-rights groups that investigated the incident and survivors and local officials who spoke to Time do raise questions about whether the extent of force used by the Marines was justified—and whether the Marines were initially candid about what took place. Dr. Wahid, director of the local hospital in Haditha, who asked that his family name be withheld because, he says, he fears reprisals by U.S. troops, says the Marines brought 24 bodies to his hospital around midnight on Nov. 19. Wahid says the Marines claimed the victims had been killed by shrapnel from the roadside bomb. "But it was obvious to us that there were no organs slashed by shrapnel," Wahid says. "The bullet wounds were very apparent. Most of the victims were shot in the chest and the head--from close range."
A day after the incident, a Haditha journalism student videotaped the scene at the local morgue and at the homes where the killings had occurred. The video was obtained by the Hammurabi Human Rights Group, which cooperates with the internationally respected Human Rights Watch, and has been shared with Time. The tape makes for grisly viewing. It shows that many of the victims, especially the women and children, were still in their nightclothes when they died. The scenes from inside the houses show that the walls and ceilings are pockmarked with shrapnel and bullet holes as well as the telltale spray of blood. But the video does not reveal the presence of any bullet holes on the outside of the houses, which may cast doubt on the Marines' contention that after the ied exploded, the Marines and the insurgents engaged in a fierce gunfight.
There are also questions about why the military took so long to investigate the details of the Haditha incident. Soon after the killings, the mayor of Haditha, Emad Jawad Hamza, led an angry delegation of elders up to the Marine camp beside a dam on the Euphrates River. Hamza says, "The captain admitted that his men had made a mistake. He said that his men thought there were terrorists near the houses, and he didn't give any other reason."
But the military stood by its initial contention—that the Iraqis had been killed by an insurgent bomb—until January when Time gave a copy of the video and witnesses' testimony to Colonel Barry Johnson, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad. After reviewing the evidence, Johnson passed it on to the military command, suggesting that the events of Haditha be given "a full and formal investigation." In February an infantry colonel went to Haditha for a weeklong probe in which he interviewed Marines, survivors and doctors at the morgue, according to military officials close to the investigation. The probe concluded that the civilians were in fact killed by Marines and not by an insurgent's bomb and that no insurgents appeared to be in the first two houses raided by the Marines. The probe found, however, that the deaths were the result of "collateral damage" rather than malicious intent by the Marines, investigators say.
The U.S. has paid relatives of the victims $2,500 for each of the 15 dead civilians, plus smaller payments for the injured. But nothing can bring back all that was taken from 9-year-old Eman Waleed on that fateful day last November. She still does not comprehend how, when her father went in to pray with the Koran for the family's safety, his prayers were not answered, as they had been so many times in the past. "He always prayed before, and the Americans left us alone," she says. Leaving, she grabs a handful of candy. "It's for my little brother," she says. "I have to take care of my brother. Nobody else is left."
--With reporting by Aparisim Ghosh/Baghdad
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