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.
Then one of the Marines took charge and began shouting, said Fahmi, who was watching from his roof. Fahmi said he saw the Marine direct other Marines into the house closest to the blast, about 50 yards away.
It was the home of 76-year-old Abdul Hamid Hassan Ali. Although he had used a wheelchair since diabetes forced a leg amputation years ago, Ali was always one of the first on his block to go out every morning, scattering scraps for his chickens and hosing the dust of the arid western town from his driveway, neighbors said.
In the house with Ali and his 66-year-old wife, Khamisa Tuma Ali, were three of the middle-aged male members of their family, at least one daughter-in-law and four children -- 4-year-old Abdullah, 8-year-old Iman, 5-year-old Abdul Rahman and 2-month-old Asia.
Marines entered shooting, witnesses recalled. Most of the shots -- in Ali's house and two others -- were fired at such close range that they went through the bodies of the family members and plowed into walls or the floor, physicians at Haditha's hospital said.
A daughter-in-law, identified as Hibbah, escaped with Asia, survivors and neighbors said. Iman and Abdul Rahman were shot but survived. Four-year-old Abdullah, Ali and the rest died.
Ali took nine rounds in the chest and abdomen, leaving his intestines spilling out of the exit wounds in his back, according to his death certificate.
The Marines moved to the house next door, Fahmi said.
Inside were 43-year-old Khafif, 41-year-old Aeda Yasin Ahmed, an 8-year-old son, five young daughters and a 1-year-old girl staying with the family, according to death certificates and neighbors.
The Marines shot them at close range and hurled grenades into the kitchen and bathroom, survivors and neighbors said later. Khafif's pleas could be heard across the neighborhood. Four of the girls died screaming.
Only 13-year-old Safa Younis lived -- saved, she said, by her mother's blood spilling onto her, making her look dead when she fell, limp, in a faint.
Townspeople led a Washington Post reporter this week to the girl they identified as Safa. Wearing a ponytail and tracksuit, the girl said her mother died trying to gather the girls. The girl burst into tears after a few words. The older couple caring for her apologized and asked the reporter to leave.
Moving to a third house in the row, Marines burst in on four brothers, Marwan, Qahtan, Chasib and Jamal Ahmed. Neighbors said the Marines killed them together.
Marine officials said later that one of the brothers had the only gun found among the three families, although there has been no known allegation that the weapon was fired.
Meanwhile, a separate group of Marines found at least one other house full of young men. The Marines led the men in that house outside, some still in their underwear, and away to detention.
The final victims of the day happened upon the scene inadvertently, witnesses said. Four male college students -- Khalid Ayada al-Zawi, Wajdi Ayada al-Zawi, Mohammed Battal Mahmoud and Akram Hamid Flayeh -- had left the Technical Institute in Saqlawiyah for the weekend to stay with one of their families on the street, said Fahmi, a friend of the young men.
A Haditha taxi driver, Ahmed Khidher, was bringing them home, Fahmi said.
According to Fahmi, the young men and their driver turned onto the street and saw the wrecked Humvee and the Marines. Khidher threw the car into reverse, trying to back away at full speed, Fahmi said, and the Marines opened fire from about 30 yards away, killing all the men inside the taxi.
After the killings, Fahmi said, more Americans arrived at the scene. They shouted among themselves. The Marines cordoned off the block; then, and for at least the next day, Marines filed into the houses, looked around and came out.
At some point on Nov. 19, Marines in an armored convoy arrived at Haditha's hospital. They placed the bodies of the victims in the garden of the hospital and left without explanation, said Mohammed al-Hadithi, one of the hospital officials who helped carry the bodies inside. By some accounts, some of the corpses were burnt.
The remains of the 24 lie today in a cemetery called Martyrs' Graveyard. Stray dogs scrounge in the deserted homes. "Democracy assassinated the family that was here," graffiti on one of the houses declared.
The insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq said it sent copies of the journalism student's videotape to mosques in Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, using the killings of the women and children to recruit fighters.
After Haditha leaders complained, the Marines paid compensation put variously by townspeople at $1,500 or $2,500 for each of the 15 men, women and children killed in the first two houses. They refused to pay for the nine other men killed, insisting that they were insurgents. Officials familiar with the investigations said it is now believed that the nine were innocent victims. By some accounts, a 25th person, the father of the four brothers killed together, was also killed.
As the official investigations conclude and fresh information continues to surface in Haditha, several aspects of the incident remain unclear or are in dispute.
For example, John Sifton of Human Rights Watch, which helped break the news that spurred the military investigation, said he had been told by Marine officers that the rampage lasted three to five hours and involved two squads of Marines.
Although Marines' accounts offered in the early stages of the investigation described a running gun battle, those versions of the story proved to be false, officials briefed by the Marines said.
Also, one member of Congress who was briefed by Marines said in Washington that the shooting of the men in the taxi occurred before the shootings in the houses.
Another point of dispute is whether some houses were destroyed by fire or by airstrikes. Some Iraqis reported that the Marines burned houses in the area of the attack, but two people familiar with the case, including Hackett, the lawyer, said warplanes conducted airstrikes, dropping 500-pound bombs on more than one house.
That is significant for any possible court-martial proceedings, because it would indicate that senior commanders, who must approve such strikes and who would also use aircraft to assess their effects, were paying attention to events in Haditha that day.
The Marines of Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines have rotated back home, to California. Last month, the Marine Corps relieved Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani of command of the 3rd Battalion. Two of his company commanders were relieved of their commands, as well. Authorities said a series of unspecified incidents had led to a loss of confidence in the three.
In Haditha, families of those killed keep an ear cocked to a foreign station, Radio Monte Carlo, waiting for any news of a trial of the Marines.
"They are waiting for the sentence -- although they are convinced that the sentence will be like one for someone who killed a dog in the United States," said Waleed Mohammed, a lawyer preparing a file for Iraqi courts and the United Nations, if the U.S. trial disappoints. "Because Iraqis have become like dogs in the eyes of Americans.''
A Washington Post staff member in Iraq and staff writer Thomas E. Ricks and staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.