The rapidly unfolding scandal over the deaths of two dozen Iraqi civilians in Haditha picked up steam on Wednesday (May 31) with a report in The New York Times in which a military investigator said the findings of his inquiry contradicted the Marines' version of what happened in the town on November 19.
The February-March investigation was led by Army Colonel Gregory Watt, who found that the death certificates of the victims showed they all had gunshot wounds, mostly to the head and chest, which conflicted with the Marines' story that the civilians were victims of a roadside bomb, according to an official with access to Watt's report.
Watt's investigation questioned whether the Marines followed established rules of engagement for identifying hostile threats when they assaulted houses near the site of a roadside bomb attack, which killed fellow Marine Lance Corporal Miguel Terrazas. The three-week probe was the first official investigation into the incident, which Time magazine uncovered in January.
CNN aired graphic images of the aftermath on Wednesday, showing bodies under bloody sheets and running interviews with alleged victims who said the American troops burst into their homes and began firing, killing seven women and three children in their beds and five unarmed men in a taxi during the attack.
Watt's findings so concerned the senior ground commander in Iraq, Lieutenant General Peter Chiarelli, that he referred the matter to the senior Marine commander in Iraq, who ordered a criminal investigation that officials say could result in murder charges being brought against members of the unit, according to the Times. The findings also prompted Chiarelli to launch an investigation into whether senior Marine officers and troops attempted to cover up what happened.
In accounts given to Watt by some Marines, they claimed to have taken gunfire from the first of five homes they entered near the bomb site. Watt also reviewed payments of $38,000 in cash made within weeks of the incident to the families of 15 victims. The officer who made those payments told the Times that she was instructed not to make payments to the families of the remaining victims because they were deemed to have committed hostile acts, leaving the families ineligible for compensation.
The military began its examination of the civilian deaths only after Time magazine printed the full findings of its investigation earlier this year. And on Tuesday, White House Spokesman Tony Snow said President Bush first became aware of the episode after he was briefed on the Time story, but that the full report on the incident from the Pentagon will be made available when it is complete. "When this comes out, all the details will be made available to the public, so we'll have a picture of what happened," Snow said.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki broke his silence on Tuesday, saying that even in a fight against violent, unpredictable terrorists, the deaths were not justified. "We emphasize that our forces, that multinational forces will respect human rights, the rights of the Iraqi citizen," al-Maliki told the BBC. "It is not justifiable that a family is killed because someone is fighting terrorists, we have to be more specific and more careful."
The Marines have changed their story on what happened at Haditha several times, first saying that 15 civilians died in the roadside bombing that also killed Terrazas. A subsequent report suggested the civilian victims may have been caught in a firefight that erupted after the bombing. But senior Pentagon officials confirmed last week that the ongoing investigation appears to support allegations that the Americans carried out an unprovoked massacre (see "Bush, Blair Admit Mistakes In Iraq; Report Says Marines May Have Murdered Civilians").
If it's true that anger following Terrazas death led to murders, Democratic Congressman John Murtha said the incident could do more damage to the U.S. war effort in Iraq than the 2004 scandal over the torture of Iraqis at the Abu Ghraib prison. "We are supposed to be fighting this war for democracy and yet, something like this happens to set us back," said Murtha, a retired Marine colonel and outspoken critic of the war. A member of the Marines who was injured in the roadside bombing and did not witness the entire aftermath, Corporal James Crossan, told CNN that the troops "might have gotten scared ... or were pissed off" by the bombing and the killing of their comrade.
Adding to the confusion and outrage over the Haditha killings, new Iraqi ambassador Samir Sumaidaie met with President Bush on Wednesday and later told CNN that his unarmed cousin was shot and killed by Marines months before the Haditha incident. "That was not a battle at all," Sumaidaie said about the incident involving his cousin. "Marines were doing house-to-house searches, and they went into the house of my cousin. He opened the door for them. His mother, his siblings were there. He led them into the bedroom of his father. And there he was shot." Sumaidaie said it was a member of the Marines who shot his cousin.
"They said that they shot him in self-defense," he added. "I find that hard to believe because, A, he is not at all a violent — I mean, I know the boy. He was [in] a second-year engineering course in the university. Nothing to do with violence. All his life has been studies and intellectual work. Totally unbelievable. And, in fact, they had no weapon in the house. They had one weapon which belonged to the school where his father was a headmaster. And it had no ammunition in it. And he led them into the room to show it to them." Sumaidaie said the investigation that followed the killing found that it was lawful.