In Haditha, Memories of a Massacre

An image from a videotape shot by a Haditha journalism student Nov. 19 shows what appears to be a morgue after an alleged retaliatory raid by U.S. Marines.
An image from a videotape shot by a Haditha journalism student Nov. 19 shows what appears to be a morgue after an alleged retaliatory raid by U.S. Marines. (Associated Press)

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By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 27, 2006

BAGHDAD, May 26 -- Witnesses to the slaying of 24 Iraqi civilians by U.S. Marines in the western town of Haditha say the Americans shot men, women and children at close range in retaliation for the death of a Marine lance corporal in a roadside bombing.

Aws Fahmi, a Haditha resident who said he watched and listened from his home as Marines went from house to house killing members of three families, recalled hearing his neighbor across the street, Younis Salim Khafif, plead in English for his life and the lives of his family members. "I heard Younis speaking to the Americans, saying: 'I am a friend. I am good,' " Fahmi said. "But they killed him, and his wife and daughters."

The 24 Iraqi civilians killed on Nov. 19 included children and the women who were trying to shield them, witnesses told a Washington Post special correspondent in Haditha this week and U.S. investigators said in Washington. The girls killed inside Khafif's house were ages 14, 10, 5, 3 and 1, according to death certificates.

Two U.S. military boards are investigating the incident as potentially the gravest violation of the law of war by U.S. forces in the three-year-old conflict in Iraq. The U.S. military ordered the probes after Time magazine presented military officials in Baghdad this year with the findings of its own investigation, based on accounts of survivors and on a videotape shot by an Iraqi journalism student at Haditha's hospital and inside victims' houses.

An investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service into the killings and a separate military probe into an alleged coverup are slated to end in the next few weeks. Marines have briefed members of the Senate Armed Services Committee and other officials on the findings; some of the officials briefed say the evidence is damaging. Charges of murder, dereliction of duty and making a false statement are likely, people familiar with the case said Friday.

"Marines overreacted . . . and killed innocent civilians in cold blood," said one of those briefed, Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), a former Marine who maintains close ties with senior Marine officers despite his opposition to the war.

Haditha is one of a chain of farm towns on the Euphrates River where U.S. and Iraqi forces have battled foreign and local insurgents without resolution for much of the war. The first account of the killings there was a false or erroneous statement issued the next day, Nov. 20, by a U.S. Marine spokesman from a Marine base in Ramadi: "A U.S. Marine and 15 civilians were killed yesterday from the blast of a roadside bomb in Haditha. Immediately following the bombing, gunmen attacked the convoy with small arms fire. Iraqi army soldiers and Marines returned fire, killing eight insurgents and wounding another.''

The incident was touched off when a roadside bomb struck a Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment supply convoy. The explosion killed Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas, 20, of El Paso, who was on his second tour of duty in Iraq. Following in the footsteps of two Marine uncles and a Marine grandfather, Terrazas had planned to go to college when it was all done, his family said.

Insurgents planted the bomb on a side road off one of Haditha's main streets, placing it between two vacant lots to try to avoid killing -- and further alienating -- Haditha's civilians, residents said. It went off at 7:15 a.m. Terrazas was driving the Humvee, and he died instantly. Two other Marines in the convoy were wounded.

"Everybody agrees that this was the triggering event. The question is: What happened afterward?" said Paul Hackett, an attorney for a Marine officer with a slight connection to the case.

The descriptions of events provided to The Post by witnesses in Haditha could not be independently verified, although their accounts of the number of casualties and their identities were corroborated by death certificates.

In the first minutes after the shock of the blast, residents said, silence reigned on the street of walled courtyards, brick homes and tiny palm groves. Marines appeared stunned, or purposeful, as they moved around the burning Humvee, witnesses said.


CONTINUED     1              >

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