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War crime at Haditha
The U.S. occupation unmasked

June 2, 2006 | Page 12

NICOLE COLSON reports on the military's admission of a war crime committed in Iraq.

"I CAN still smell the blood." Lance Cpl. Roel Ryan Briones is haunted by the horror of what his fellow Marines did in Haditha, Iraq, one day late last year.

Military officials are now admitting that their own investigation proves that Marines murdered two dozen unarmed Iraqis--men, women and children--in Haditha.

After first denying the massacre, the Pentagon now claims that the killings were an "isolated" incident. They weren't. The murders were the predictably outcome of the murderous U.S. occupation of Iraq.

On the morning of November 19, 2005, a roadside bomb near Haditha struck a convoy carrying members of Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment--a Marine unit based out of Camp Pendleton in California. The blast killed Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas.

In the aftermath of the events that would follow, the Marines would claim that Terrazas and 15 Iraqi civilians were killed by the bomb. After the explosion, according to a press release that the Marines released the following day, "gunmen attacked the convoy with small-arms fire," prompting the Marines to return fire, killing eight "insurgents" and wounding another.

But residents of Haditha maintained from the start that no civilians were killed by the bomb. According to them, it was the Marines who were responsible for the slaughter--gunning down four unarmed teens and a driver in a taxi, then wiping out 19 residents as they stormed through at least three nearby homes.

In March, 9-year-old Eman Walid, who sustained a shrapnel wound in the attack, told Time magazine that the Marines burst into the home where her terrified family--including her mother, grandfather, grandmother, two brothers, two aunts and two uncles--was huddled together in the living room in their nightclothes.

"First, they went into my father's room, where he was reading the Koran," she said, "and we heard shots."

Then, according to Eman, the soldiers came back into the living room. "I couldn't see their faces very well--only their guns sticking into the doorway," she said. "I watched them shoot my grandfather, first in the chest and then in the head. Then they killed my granny."

Then, she said, the Marines fired into the corner of the room, where she and her younger brother were, as desperate adults tried to shield the children from the bullets. "We were lying there, bleeding, and it hurt so much," she told Time.

Thirteen-year-old Safa Younis Salim recently told the New York Times that she survived only because she faked her own death. "I pretended that I was dead when my brother's body fell on me, and he was bleeding like a faucet," she said.

Safa said that she saw American troops kick her family members, and one American shouted in the face of one of her relatives, before killing them.

The day after the massacre, Iraqi journalism student Taher Thabet videotaped the bodies at the local morgue and the homes where the shootings occurred. "You could tell [the soldiers] were enraged," Thabet recently told Time. "They not only killed people, they smashed furniture, tore down wall hangings, and when they took prisoners, they treated them very roughly."

After the Time magazine report in March, the military was forced to launch a wider inquiry into the deaths. Now, with details from the investigation beginning to surface, it's clear that the Marines committed what can only be described as a war crime.

"There wasn't a gunfight, there were no pockmarked walls," one congressional aide told the Los Angeles Times, contradicting the Marines' initial reports of a "gun battle" with insurgents. Officials who have viewed the military's reports say the evidence shows no one fired at the Marines after the initial explosion.

Additionally, said one Defense Department official, "the wounds indicated execution-style" shootings in the head and back. "This was not a burst of fire, but a sustained operation over several hours, maybe five hours," another official told the New York Times.

One unnamed military source told a reporter that the investigation indicates one of the victims, Abdul Hamid Hassan, an elderly man nearly 80 years old, was killed in his wheelchair as he held a Koran. An elderly woman was also killed, as were a mother and a child who were "in what appeared to be a prayer position," the official said.

Lance Cpl. Briones, who was part of the "clean-up crew" sent in following the killings to help carry the bodies of the victims out of their homes, recently told the Los Angeles Times that the corpses he saw "ranged from little babies to adult males and females."

The worst moment, he said, was picking up the body of a little girl who had been shot in the head. "I held her out like this," he told a reporter, extending his arms, "but her head was bobbing up and down and the insides fell on my legs."

Now, at least some members of Kilo Company are expected to be indicted in connection with the deaths, on charges including murder, attempted murder and dereliction of duty, among others.

Of the 12 Marines being investigated, a four-man "fire team" led by a sergeant is thought to have done the killing, according to officials briefed on the investigation. That sergeant reportedly filed the false report saying that civilians had been killed by the roadside bomb. Other Marines are being investigated for failing to stop the murders and deliberately attempting to cover up what occurred with false reports.

While the military feigned ignorance about the atrocities in the aftermath, there can be no doubt that officials were well aware of what occurred. Briones, who was instructed to take photos of the scene by a superior officer, says he took pictures of at least 15 bodies before the batteries on his camera died, and that he turned over the pictures immediately to the Haditha Marine command center.

Additionally, says Briones, most of the Marines on the site following the massacre were sergeants or above, including several officers. "I remember," he told the Los Angeles Times, "because they didn't have enough lance corporals to deal with the bodies."

So far, three Marine officers, including the company and battalion commander, have been relieved of duty in part for actions related to the deaths in Haditha.

In January, when Time first obtained the videotape from journalism student Taher Thabet and began investigating, a Marine spokesperson brushed off the story as terrorist "propaganda." "To be honest," Marine Capt. Jeff Pool e-mailed Time reporter Tim McGirk at the time, "I cannot believe you're buying any of this. This falls into the same category of AQI (al-Qaeda in Iraq) propaganda."

No longer able to get away with denying the massacre, military officials today have moved on to claim that the murders were caused by a few "out-of-control" troops. "Fortunately, it does not happen very frequently, so there's no way to say historically why something like this might have happened," Gen. Peter Pace, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told CBS's The Early Show last week.

But crimes like the rampage in Haditha are not an isolated exception. They are the inevitable result of the U.S. war and occupation.

In addition to the systematic torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, the military is currently conducting a criminal investigation into another incident, the death of an Iraqi civilian on April 26, involving Marines in Hamandiyah, west of Baghdad.

And in March, U.S. troops were accused of killing 11 civilians, including five children and a 75-year-old women, in the town of Ishaqi, north of Baghdad. While the military claimed that a house collapsed following a firefight, killing those inside, witnesses say the civilians had been gathered together in the corner of one room, and were shot at close range--a claim supported by Iraqi police.

Bush administration officials claim to be "fighting terrorism" in Iraq, but the massacre in Haditha shows the truth--it is the U.S. military that is inflicting terror and suffering.

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