Sunday, October 21, 2007

Sitrep: What Went Down At Haditha

The incident at Haditha--or the massacre, as it is often called--is due for a wholesale rethinking. The allegations are that in 2005 U.S. Marines went on a killing spree and deliberately executed 24 Iraqi civilians. The casualties have drawn an extraordinary amount of political attention, becoming an emblem for everything critics say is wrong with the Iraq war--in the common telling, another My Lai.

Thus Congressman Jack Murtha, a decorated combat veteran, made accusations of war crimes and said the Marines had killed "in cold blood." These are serious charges; and military justice continues to deal with them seriously, though thankfully at a slower pace than politics. Now the prosecutions have mostly unraveled. It seems Haditha, though tragic, was exploited politically, and the allegations were exaggerated, if not unfounded.

Here is what we know. On November 17, 2005, Kilo Company of the First Marine Regiment's Third Battalion was returning from a routine logistics mission in Haditha, a town 140 miles northwest of Baghdad. Haditha is in Anbar province, a heart of the Sunni insurgency with one of the highest U.S. casualty rates in Iraq. The security situation at the time was treacherous.

Shortly after 7 a.m., an improvised explosive device detonated under the last vehicle in Company K's four-Humvee convoy. It instantly killed Lance Corporal Miguel Terrazas and wounded two others. Windows were shattered for 150 yards, and smoke and debris were everywhere.

An oncoming white sedan had been waved over near the stalled convoy. Five military-age occupants exited and disobeyed orders in Arabic to halt; at least one began to run. Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich, the squad commander, and Sergeant Sanick Dela Cruz opened fire, killing all of them. The men were suspected of being spotters for, or remotely detonating, the IED.

As a quick reaction force arrived, headed by First Lieutenant William Kallop, Company K began taking small arms fire from several locations on either side of the convoy. While taking cover, they identified at least one shooter in the vicinity of a nearby "trigger house." Lt. Kallop ordered SSgt. Wuterich and a makeshift team to treat the building as hostile and "clear" it.

They forced entry and shot a man on a flight of stairs, then another when he made a movement toward a closet. The Marines say they heard the sound of an AK-47 being racked, so threw grenades into a nearby room and fired; they killed five occupants, with two others wounded by grenade fragments and bullets.

SSgt. Wuterich and his men pursued a runner into an adjacent house. They led the assault with grenades and gunfire, in the process killing another man. Unknown to the Marines, two women and six children were in a back room. Seven were killed. It was chaotic and fast-moving in the dark, close-range quarters, and accounts diverge on the chronology and offensive actions.

After the firefight ended, around 9:30, the Marines noted men suspected of scouting for another attack "turkey peeking" behind the wall of a third house. A team followed to find women and children inside (who were not harmed). They moved to a fourth house off a courtyard and killed inside two men wielding AK-47s and two others.

In March 2006, Time magazine broke the story, which erupted in the press. The accounts relied on a narrative that the Marines had gone berserk after the killing of Cpl. Terrazas and murdered Iraqis in retaliation. "Eyewitnesses" reported that the riders in the car had been lined up and executed, and that there had been a rampage through the houses targeting women and children. A coverup by the top brass was also asserted.

After the incident became public, the military was unusually aggressive. It launched at least two exhaustive, months-long inquiries. Four of the enlisted men from Company K were charged with unpremeditated murder--essentially, killings without sanction. Four Marine officers who were not on the scene were charged with dereliction of duty for improperly reporting and investigating.

Before courts martial, all charges are referred to Article 32 hearings, the military equivalent of a grand jury. The senior investigating officer for the infantrymen, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Ware, had a chance to look at all the evidence, not just that selectively leaked or filtered. The result is that the charges are being reduced or dismissed altogether.

In separate Article 32 proceedings, two of the officers have been exonerated; one, the highest ranking, has been recommended for a court martial, and the other case remains pending. Of the four infantrymen, two have seen their charges dismissed (one in exchange for testimony); and charges against a third have been recommended to be dismissed. Ten of SSgt. Wuterich's indictments have been recommended for dismissal, and the seven others reduced to negligent homicide, essentially, accidental or negligent killings. Why?

The first imperative is to understand the complex, asymmetrical combat conditions in Iraq. The Marines were (and are) facing a determined enemy who dress as civilians and use homes, schools, hospitals and mosques as their bases of operation. They try to goad killings among the civilian population because it foments domestic opposition against U.S. troops while undermining them with elite international opinion.

In this environment, accusations of U.S. atrocities against civilians occur after almost every military operation. That partly explains why the Marines did not immediately investigate the Haditha killings. They viewed some Iraqi claims as part of insurgent "information operations" and did not suspect any misconduct. That day also saw citywide violence and multiple combat actions, and the killings seemed, regrettably but realistically, routine.

Perhaps, ex post facto, the officers might have erred on the side of scrutiny, though it is more exactly the duty of commanders to report accurately up the chain of command. Aside from some glitches, such as an erroneous public affairs statement that some of the civilians had been killed by the roadside bomb, they seem to have done so. There are also accusations that the delay in the full probe compromised the case. One indication of affairs in Haditha is that the heavily guarded investigators came under a coordinated insurgent attack.

Still, negligence, if proved, does not constitute a cover-up. Even the most fault-finding Haditha inquiry, conducted by Army Major General Eldon Bargewell, rejected the idea of some upper-level conspiracy. As for the infantrymen at Haditha, Lt. Col. Ware's investigation concluded, in a representative statement, that "No trier of fact can conclude SSgt Wuterich formed the criminal intent to kill." The allegations of a deliberate massacre are entirely unfounded. They are contradicted by credible testimony, and remain a "story unsupported by evidence."

If any of the reduced cases do move to courts martial, as some likely will, they will turn on the rules of engagement. Decisions made in the heat of battle are hard to judge from the outside. At the critical moment, hesitation can result in a soldier or his unit getting killed. Thus military justice usually presumes a benefit of the doubt if decisions that were reasonable in the line of fire appear wrong in hindsight. A bad result does not imply a bad decision.

At Haditha, did the Marines act reasonably and appropriately based on their training? They were in a hostile combat situation where deadly force was authorized against suspected triggermen for the IED, and were ordered to assault a suspected insurgent hideout. In retrospect, the men in the car had no weapons or explosives; in retrospect, the people in the house were not insurgents. No one knew at the time.

Innocents were killed at Haditha, as they inevitably are in all wars--though that does not excuse or justify wrongdoing. Yet neither was Haditha the atrocity or "massacre" that many assumed--though errors in judgment may well have been committed. And while some violent crimes have been visited on civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, overall the highly disciplined U.S. military has conducted itself in an exemplary fashion. When there have been aberrations, the services have typically held themselves accountable.

The same cannot be said of the political and media classes. Many, including Members of Congress, were looking for another moral bonfire to discredit the cause in Iraq, and they found a pretext in Haditha. The critics rushed to judgment; facts and evidence were discarded to fit the antiwar template.

Most despicably, they created and stoked a political atmosphere that exposes American soldiers in the line of duty, risking and often losing their lives, to criminal liability for the chaos of war. This is the deepest shame of Haditha, and the one for which apologies ought to be made."

It's perfectly reasonable for politicians to deride, scorn, besmirch and flat out lie about the conduct of our servicemen, but let one radio talk show host say something that actually required the ability to READ A FRICKIN TRANSCRIPT to decipher, and the Senate of these United States does to him what they've been doing to Marines.

A bad shoot is a bad shoot but Haditha was not.

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