Iraqi City at Center of Alleged Massacre

By ANTONIO CASTANEDA
The Associated Press
Monday, May 29, 2006; 12:01 AM

HADITHA, Iraq -- It was a tough mission in one of the toughest cities in Iraq: winning the confidence of a Sunni Arab population in an area long known for hostility toward the Americans.

To perform the job, the U.S. military sent one of its most experienced units, the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment.

Now both Haditha and the battalion are at the center of what could become the war's gravest scandals _ allegations that some Marines massacred as many as 24 civilians Nov. 19 after a bomb killed a comrade.

Haditha, a city of lush date and pomegranate groves along the Euphrates River about 140 miles northwest of Baghdad, was notorious among U.S. troops well before most Americans heard the name.

In just three days last August, six Marine snipers were killed in Haditha and 14 Marines died in nearby Parwana in the deadliest roadside bombing of the war.

The country's most feared terrorist, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, once lived in Haditha and delivered a sermon at a mosque in nearby Haqlaniyah in the summer of 2005, U.S. officers said.

Last fall, U.S. commanders decided it was time to put an end to Haditha as an insurgent stronghold. In early October, they sent in the 1st Marines' 3rd Battalion, veterans of the November 2004 siege of Fallujah, the most intense urban combat of the Iraq war.

It was the unit's third tour in Iraq in less than 2 1/2 years. Most of its Marines had only been back home at Camp Pendleton, Calif., for about seven months. Feelings were mixed about another assignment in Anbar province, the stronghold of Iraq's Sunni Arab-dominated insurgency.

Some Marines were looking forward to a civilian life. Others had just gotten accustomed to lives with family and friends again in Southern California. But others were looking forward to another important mission doing what they train for.

All were mindful of the risks. More than 30 members of the battalion, known as the 3-1, died during the last tour in Iraq, most in the battle of Fallujah.

Some battle-hardened Marines were just 20 years old _ too young to buy a beer legally back home.

Haditha was a different kind of mission, less high-intensity combat than Fallujah but just as challenging and stressful.


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