Death in Haditha
Saturday, January 6, 2007
U.S. Marines gunned down five unarmed Iraqis who stumbled onto the scene of a 2005 roadside bombing in Haditha, Iraq, according to eyewitness accounts that are part of a lengthy investigative report obtained by The Washington Post.
Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich, the squad's leader, shot the men one by one after Marines ordered them out of a white taxi in the moments following the explosion, which killed one Marine and injured two others, witnesses told investigators. Another Marine fired rounds into their bodies as they lay on the ground.
"The taxi's five occupants exited the vehicle and according to U.S. and Iraqi witnesses, were shot by Wuterich as they stood, unarmed, next to the vehicle approximately ten feet in front of him," said a report by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service on the incident that runs thousands of pages.
One of the witnesses, Sgt. Asad Amer Mashoot, a 26-year-old Iraqi soldier who was in the Marine convoy, told investigators he watched in horror as the four students and the taxi driver fell. "They didn't even try to run away," he said. "We were afraid from Marines and we saw them behaving like crazy. They were yelling and screaming."
The shootings were the first in a series of violent reactions by Marines on the morning of Nov. 19, 2005 that left 24 civilians -- many of them women and children -- dead, in what some human rights groups and Iraqis have called a massacre by U.S. troops.
The report, which relied on hundreds of interviews with Marines, Iraqi soldiers and civilian survivors conducted months after the incident, presents a fragmented and sometimes conflicting chronicle of the violence that day. But taken together, the accounts provide evidence that as the Marines came under attack, they responded in ways that are difficult to reconcile with their rules of engagement.
Four Marines were charged with murder last month in connection with the civilian deaths in Haditha: Wuterich, who faces 13 counts of unpremeditated murder; Sgt. Sanick P. Dela Cruz; Lance Cpl. Justin L. Sharratt; and Lance Cpl. Stephen B. Tatum. Each faces the possibility of life in prison if convicted.
Through their lawyers, three have argued that they behaved appropriately while taking fire on a chaotic battlefield, and that the civilian deaths were a regrettable but unavoidable part of warfare in an especially dangerous area. Dela Cruz's attorney has declined to comment.
The Marine Corps also has charged four officers with failing to investigate and fully report the slayings: Lt. Col. Jeffrey R. Chessani, Capt. Lucas M. McConnell, Capt. Randy W. Stone and Lt. Andrew A. Grayson.
The Marines told investigators that they believed they were authorized to fire freely inside two houses they raided in the minutes following the taxi shootings, after concluding that insurgents were firing on them. After an officer ordered them to "take" one of the homes and Wuterich commanded them to "shoot first, ask questions later," the Marines considered the houses "hostile," according to sworn statements to investigators.
Marine officials have accused the troops of failing to identify their targets before using grenades and guns to kill 14 unarmed people in the houses, including several young children in their pajamas, in a span of about 10 minutes, according to the documents.
Safah Yunis Salem, 13, who said she played dead to avoid being shot, was the only person to survive the Marine attack on the second house. Her sister Aisha, 3, was shot in the leg and died; her brother Zainab, 5, was killed by a shot to the head. She said she lost five other members of her family in the room, including her mother.