Correction to This Article
A June 4 article misattributed a quotation about the reaction to a March briefing in the Office of the Secretary of Defense on the findings of a military inquiry into the killings of civilians in Haditha, Iraq. The person who said it was "really, really bad ¿ as bad or worse than Abu Ghraib" was not Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld but one of his aides, according to a Pentagon official.

In Haditha Killings, Details Came Slowly

By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 4, 2006

At 5 p.m. Nov. 19, near the end of one of the most violent days the Marine Corps had experienced in the Upper Euphrates Valley, a call went out for trucks to collect the bodies of 24 Iraqi civilians.

The unit that arrived in the farming town of Haditha found babies, women and children shot in the head and chest. An old man in a wheelchair had been shot nine times. A group of girls, ages 1 to 14, lay dead. Everyone had been killed by gunfire, according to death certificates issued later.

The next day, Capt. Jeffrey S. Pool, a Marine spokesman in Iraq, released a terse statement: Fifteen Iraqis "were killed yesterday from the blast of a roadside bomb in Haditha. Immediately after the bombing, gunmen attacked the convoy with small arms fire. Iraqi army soldiers and Marines returned fire, killing eight insurgents and wounding another."

Despite what Marine witnesses saw when they arrived, that official version has been allowed to stand for six months. Who lied about the killings, who knew the truth and what, if anything, they did about it are at the core of one of the potentially most embarrassing and damaging events of the Iraq war, one that some say may surpass the detainee abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib prison.

The Marine Corps is saying only that it would be inappropriate to comment while investigations are underway. But since that Saturday afternoon in November, evidence has been accumulating steadily that the official version was wrong and misleading. The more military investigators learned about what happened that day in Haditha, the more they grew disturbed.

On Nov. 29, the Marine unit in question -- Kilo Company of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment -- had a memorial service at a Marine base for Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas, a well-liked 20-year-old from El Paso, Tex. He was killed in a roadside bomb explosion that appears to have been the trigger for what looks to investigators like revenge shootings of Iraqi civilians. Lance Cpl. Roel Ryan Briones said that Terrazas had been "like a brother to me." Staff Sgt. Travis Fields, Terrazas's platoon sergeant, called him "a man of heart." Not long after the bodies were discovered, Maj. Dana Hyatt, a Marine reservist whose job in part was to work with the civilian population when damage was inflicted by the U.S. military, paid out $38,000 in compensation to the families of the 15 dead. The Iraqis received the maximum the United States offers -- $2,500 per death, plus a small amount for other damage.

Kilo Company did not dwell on what happened Nov. 19. Mike Coffman, who was a Marine Reserve officer in Haditha at the time, recalled that another officer, telling him about the incident, "indicated to me that he thought from the beginning that it was overreaction by the Marines, but he didn't think anything criminal had occurred."

When the Haditha city council met in January for the first time in many months, "none of them [Iraqi members] ever raised it as an issue," said Coffman, who attended the meeting. Rather, he said, they complained about how car and truck traffic in the area had been shut down after two Marines were killed at a checkpoint bombing.

That same month, a top military official arrived in Iraq who would play a key role in the case: Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the new No. 2 military officer in the country. He is an unusual general in today's Army, with none of the "good old boy" persona seen in many other top commanders. He had praised an article by a British officer that was sharply critical of U.S. officers in Iraq for using tactics that alienated the population. He wanted U.S. forces to operate differently than they had been doing.

Not long after Chiarelli arrived in Baghdad, an Iraqi journalism student gave an Iraqi human rights group a video he had taken in Haditha the day after the incident. It showed the scene at the local morgue and the damage in the houses where the killings took place. The video reached Time magazine, whose reporters began questioning U.S. military officials. Pool, the Marine captain, sent the reporters a dismissive e-mail saying that they were falling for al-Qaeda propaganda, the magazine said recently. "I cannot believe you're buying any of this," he wrote. Pool declined last week to comment on any aspect of the Haditha incident.

But Army Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a more senior spokesman in Baghdad, notified Chiarelli of the questions. The general's response to his public affairs office was short: Just brief the Time magazine reporter on the military investigation into the incident that Chiarelli assumed had been conducted.

The surprising word came back: There had been no investigation.

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