Analysis: U.S. Braces for Marine Scandal
Saturday, May 27, 2006; 11:05 PM
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The U.S. military is bracing for a major scandal over the alleged slaying of Iraqi civilians by Marines in Haditha _ charges so serious they could threaten President Bush's effort to rally support at home for an increasingly unpopular war.
And while the case has attracted little attention so far in Iraq, it still could enflame hostility to the U.S. presence just as Iraq's new government is getting established, and complicate efforts by moderate Sunni Arab leaders to reach out to their community _ the bedrock of the insurgency.
U.S. lawmakers have been told the criminal investigation will be finished in about 30 days. But a Pentagon official said investigators believe Marines committed unprovoked murder in the deaths of about two dozen people at Haditha in November.
With a political storm brewing, the top U.S. Marine, Gen. Michael W. Hagee, is headed to Iraq to personally deliver the message that troops should use deadly force "only when justified, proportional and, most importantly, lawful."
Haditha is not the only case pending: On Wednesday, the military announced an investigation into allegations that Marines killed a civilian April 26 near Fallujah. The statement gave no further details except that "several service members" had been sent back to the United States "pending the results of the criminal investigation."
Last July, Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations, Samir al-Sumaidaie, accused the Marines of killing his 21-year-old cousin in cold blood during a search of his family's home in Haditha, a city of about 90,000 people along the Euphrates River 140 miles northwest of Baghdad.
The military ordered a criminal investigation but the results have not been announced.
Together, the cases present the most serious challenge to U.S. handling of the Iraq war since the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, which Bush cited Thursday as "the biggest mistake that's happened so far, at least from our country's involvement in Iraq."
"What happened at Haditha appears to be outright murder," said Marc Garlasco of Human Rights Watch. "It has the potential to blow up in the U.S. military's face."
He said that "the Haditha massacre will go down as Iraq's My Lai," a reference to the Vietnam War incident in which American soldiers slaughtered up to 500 civilians in 1968.
The Haditha case involves both the alleged killing of civilians and a purported cover-up of the events that unfolded Nov. 19.
That day, Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas, 20, of El Paso, Texas, was killed by a roadside bomb in Haditha, a Sunni Arab city considered among the most hostile areas of Iraq.