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The Haditha Factor

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
Updated June 2, 2006

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Not much good news trickles out of Iraq these days. The latest setback involves the revelation—first reported by TIME in March—that Marines allegedly went on a killing spree in the Iraqi town of Haditha last November that left twenty-four civilians dead, some of them slain execution-style. The victims included women, children, and even one wheelchair-bound elderly man.

A separate, unrelated incident occurred in April, when seven Marines and a Navy corpsman reportedly dragged an Iraqi man from his home in Hamandiya and shot him (AP). The U.S. troops, who face charges of murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy, are said to have left a shovel and AK-47 near his corpse to create the appearance he was planting a roadside bomb.

Much like the shock and anger that followed the revelations of abuse at Abu Ghraib, the U.S. military is now scrambling to do damage control, particularly amid charges that a cover-up followed the rampage. Military officials relieved the officers in charge and ordered a series of investigations, as this new Backgrounder explains. The Marines in both cases may have violated the Uniform Code of Military Justice and could face charges of murder, or worse, war crimes. President Bush told reporters he was "troubled" by allegations of murder by Marines (ABC News) and promised that "those who violated the law, if they did, will be punished." The U.S. military announced it will begin providing troops in Iraq with ethics—or so-called "core values"—training, something William M. Arkin, a blogger on national security for the Washington Post, calls a "a hapless and hollow gesture."

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who says Haditha-like massacres by multinational forces are "common" in Iraq (FT), announced the Iraqi government will launch its own probe into the killings and has called for U.S. officials to turn over documentation related to the incident. "The victims were citizens of a country whose sovereignty the United States has hailed," Daniel Schorr writes in the Christian Science Monitor. "It is not likely, though, that any Marines will be turned over to the Iraqi Justice Ministry for trial."

The revelation of the killings at Haditha and Hamandiya coincide with the war's plummeting approval ratings. Less than a third of the Americans polled by the Washington Post/ABC News approve of the president's handling of the war. Even most Iraqis, whose "hearts and minds" the U.S. wants to win, say the country is heading in the wrong direction (LAT), according to a recent poll by the International Republican Institute. Hence, unlike past military embarrassments, such as My Lai in Vietnam, which were instrumental in tipping the public against the war, Haditha will have "more of a solidifying impact than a shifting effect," predicts CFR Military Fellow Colonel Peter R. Mansoor.

However, Colonel Mansoor adds that the events at Haditha may further damage the U.S. image abroad, particularly in the Muslim world. Incidents like these, which are used by Muslim extremists for propaganda purposes and replayed endlessly on Arabic television, make refurbishing the American image in the Middle East a tough task, as Karen Hughes, Washington's top public diplomacy official, told CFR in May.

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