Sunday, January 07, 2007

Witness Accounts of Attack on Haditha's Civilians Revealed

U.S. criminal investigators found no evidence to support the claim of Marines charged in the deaths of unarmed Iraqi civilians that five were shot after trying to flee the scene of a roadside bombing that killed one Marine, a senior defense official said Saturday, "One of the five may have been kneeling at the time he was shot."

A photo contained in a U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service report obtained by The Washington Post shows damage from a roadside bomb on the morning of Nov. 19, 2005, near Haditha, Iraq.

The Sunday Telegraph reports:
The criminal inquiry into the massacre of civilians by US Marines in the Iraqi town of Haditha has unearthed chilling new evidence of how troops ordered five men out of a taxi and shot them one by one at near-point blank range.

A leaked copy of the probe into the incident – the most serious case of alleged US misconduct in the Iraq war so far – quotes a horrified witness saying that the marines went "crazy" after a roadside bomb killed one of their squad and injured two others.
They appear to have taken revenge on the occupants of a white taxi which arrived on the scene shortly afterwards. The report describes how, after telling them to get out of the vehicle, the Marines' squad leader, Staff Sgt Frank D Wuterich, opened fire on the Iraqis with his M16 rifle from a distance of no more than 10ft, despite the fact that some of them had their hands up. The men, standing in a line, dropped to the ground as an Iraqi soldier attached to the marines unit looked on in horror.

Staff Sergeant Frank D. Wuterich brought a defamation lawsuit against Congressman John Murtha in August, 2006, for public comments he made relating to this case.

Sgt Asad Amer Mashoot, who later gave evidence to the inquiry conducted by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, said in his statement: "They didn't even try to run away. We were afraid from the marines and we saw them behaving like crazy. They were yelling and screaming."

Another marine at the scene, Sgt Sanick P Dela Cruz, tells the inquiry how he then fired additional shots into the dead men as they lay on the ground. In an additional mark of disrespect, the report said, he later urinated on one of the corpses.

Both Sgt Dela Cruz and Staff Sgt Wuterich have been charged with murder, along with L/Cpl Justin L Sharratt and L/Cpl Stephen B Tatum. All face life imprisonment if found guilty.

The men in the taxi were among a total of 24 Iraqis killed by the marines in the wake of a bomb attack on their convoy as it drove through Haditha, an insurgent-plagued town in the western Iraqi desert, on the morning of November 19, 2005.

Despite claims by locals that the troops went on the rampage, hurling grenades into nearby houses and killing women and children, the marine squad's commanders failed to launch any inquiry until prompted by a Time magazine report into the incident some two months later. Four senior officers, not present at the incident, have been charged over their alleged failure to investigate and report the deaths properly.

The scale of the killings sparked horror in America and drew comparisons with the 1968 My Lai massacre, which dramatically reduced support for the American military campaign in Vietnam.

Nonetheless, while some of the testimony to the inquiry paints a grim picture of troops virtually running amok, much of it backs up the marines' claim that they came under sustained fire after the bombing and were responding to immediate threats to life.

A body being carried out of a morgue in Haditha

Several marines testified that as they tried to help their injured colleagues away from the wreckage of a bombed-out Humvee, they came under fire from several gunmen on either side of the road, some using local houses as sniping points.

At the first house they then stormed, Staff Sgt Wuterich told his men to "treat it as a hostile environment", giving the order: "Shoot first, ask questions later". L/Cpl Tatum then heard what he believed was an AK47 rifle being cocked in another room. He and his comrades then tossed in grenades and "cleared" the rest of the house by rifle fire, only to discover later that they had killed six members of a family, including a four-year-old boy and his mother.

Among the survivors was the boy's sister, Eman Hamed, nine, who later gave a harrowing account of the killings to the world's media: "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."

However, Sgt Mashoot, the Iraqi soldier who was with the marines, told the inquiry that he felt that the attacks on the houses were justified, and not acts of simple revenge. The report said he believed the marines "had justification" for the raids because they were "defending themselves".

Inside one of the houses.

Several of the marines later expressed regrets that innocent civilians had been killed, but insisted that they had followed the rules of engagement. "I fired because I had been told the house was hostile and I was following my training that all individuals in a hostile house are to be shot," said L/Cpl Humberto M Mendoza. Staff Sgt Wuterich also told the inquiry: "We did not go in intentionally to spray everyone we saw. We were taking fire."

Attorneys acting for the marines have declined to comment on the report, which runs into thousands of pages and was leaked to yesterday's Washington Post.

When allegations about the killings at Haditha originally surfaced, American marine commanders believed they were part of an insurgent propaganda campaign to smear the soldiers' reputation. A subsequent investigation by a senior US Army commander backed up the marines' version of events, pointing out that they were in the middle of a battlefield and that the troops had grounds for suspecting that the men in the taxi were insurgents. It did, however, recommend the separate probe by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, which began in March and led to murder charges last month.

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