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What Happens Now on Haditha Investigation

Author: Lionel Beehner
Updated: June 6, 2006

Introduction

Allegations recently surfaced that U.S. Marines, in response to the death of one of their own, deliberately murdered Iraqi civilians last November in Haditha, located in the heart of the Sunni Triangle. The facts of the case remain unclear, but witnesses say the Marines opened fire on insurgents before massacring as many as twenty-four unarmed Iraqis, including women, children, and the elderly. The U.S. military has launched an investigation into the massacre, as well as into allegations that military officials ordered a cover-up are also under investigation. Some have already likened the Haditha massacre to My Lai, the Vietnamese village where U.S. Army soldiers slaughtered around 500 civilians in 1968.

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What happened at Haditha?

During a routine patrol on the morning of November 19, the Third Battalion of the First Marine Regiment came under small-arms attack and returned fire, shortly after their convoy of four Humvees was struck by an improvised explosive device (IED), killing one marine, Lance Corporal Miguel Terrazas of El Paso, Texas. What happened next is unclear and the subject of widespread speculation. According to the U.S. military's initial report, now under scrutiny by several investigative bodies, the IED also killed fifteen civilians. The Marines, under fire, responded by killing eight gunmen. However, forensic evidence and eyewitness accounts contradict this version of events and suggest the possibility of a massacre. Whatever the facts, the shootout that day in Haditha capped one of the most violent three-day periods since the start of the war. According to the New York Times, at least 150 Iraqis and eight U.S. and British soldiers perished in the series of attacks, culminating in the November 19 firefight in Haditha, an insurgent stronghold northwest of Baghdad.

What evidence of a massacre is there?

Eyewitnesses, a videotape by an Iraqi journalism student, and photographs taken of the firefight's aftermath all contradict the official version of events. Iraqis say the Marines, enraged by the killing of their fallen comrade, gunned down five taxi passengers they suspected of triggering the IED before going door-to-door to four homes and killing in cold blood up to nineteen men, women, and children. Forensic evidence and death certificates contradict the military's claim that the Marines withstood heavy gunfire from the homes (there are few gunshot holes on the outside of the houses but numerous holes on their interiors). Investigators found many of the victims with gunshot wounds to the head and chest. One was reportedly a wheelchair-bound elderly man clutching a Koran. Among the survivors to come forward with information was Safa Unas Salim, a 13-year-old girl who said she hid under the body of a dying relative to avoid being slain by the U.S. soldiers.

When did the U.S. military learn of the incident?

February 10, according to news reports. It’s unclear why it took so long for the information to make its way up the chain of command, or whether a cover-up was ordered, and if so, by whom. Some officials accuse the military of not immediately coming forward with information about the alleged massacre. “[T]he first accounts of the incidents were erroneous and appear to be falsified,” John Sifton, a lawyer with Human Rights Watch told Democracy Now!, a New York-based independent news outfit, referring to the original Marines communiqué sent November 20. “The question is how high up the chain of command those lies went.” Rep. John Murtha (D-PA), a former Marine colonel, told ABC News, “This investigation should have been over two or three weeks afterwards and it should have been made public and people should have been held responsible for it.” TIME presented its findings to military officials in early February and published them on March 27.

What was the Pentagon’s response to the allegations?
  • The Third Battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Chessani and the two company commanders at the time were relieved of their duties in April and are now back at the Marine Corps base at Camp Pendleton, California. General Peter Pace, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, says upon learning of the alleged massacre the military ordered an immediate criminal probe, led by Colonel Gregory Watt, a Baghdad-based Army officer. He reportedly briefed Lieutenant General Peter Chiarelli, the top ground commander in Iraq, on March 9, though his findings have not been made public.
  • Senior military officials briefed members of Congress, including Murtha, who said what happened at Haditha is "as bad as Abu Ghraib, if not worse."
  • The U.S. military offered payments of up to $2,500 per victim—$38,000 in total—to relatives of two of the families, according to Richard Oppel of the New York Times. "It's not uncommon for the military to pay payments to...innocent people who were killed," he told the Newshour with Jim Lehrer. The payments are not an admission of guilt, experts say, but recognition that civilians were killed as collateral damage.
  • The Pentagon has launched a parallel investigation on the alleged cover-up of the incident and whether what happened at Haditha was referred properly up the chain of command.
  • The U.S. military ordered that its forces in Iraq receive "core values" training on ethics and the laws of combat.
How high up the chain of command will the investigations go?

It's unclear. The law of command responsibility generally states that any commander is responsible for the actions of his subordinates during a time of war. The law "extends as high as any officer in the chain of command who knows or has reason to know that his subordinates are committing war crimes and failed to act to stop them," according to the Crimes of War Project website. Some experts say the commanding officers who approved the compensation should have asked more questions about what the payments were for. "In my brigade, I investigated every one of those cases," says Colonel Peter R. Mansoor, a CFR military fellow, referring to the half-dozen times compensation payments were doled out to Iraqis during his July 2003-June 2004 tour of duty in Iraq. He adds, however, that approval for such compensation does not have to go very high up the military chain of command.

What has been the White House response to the incident?

"I am troubled by the initial news stories," President Bush told reporters May 31. "If in fact these allegations are true, the Marine Corps will work hard to make sure that... that proud culture will be reinforced. And that those who violated the law, if they did, will be punished." Military experts say President Bush, as commander in chief, should not comment publicly on the incident because of what's called "undue command influence," which bars commanding officers from prejudging alleged offenses for fear of tainting the judicial process. "If I'm a defense attorney for these Marines and the president says, 'Hang 'em high,' then I'm going to appeal that the president influenced the investigation," Colonel Mansoor says. The investigations under way are independent of the White House.

What happens if the Marines are found guilty?

The Marines stand accused of violating the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which embodies the 1948 Geneva Conventions that govern the laws of war. The accused, in addition to their superiors, could face murder charges, or worse, charges of violating the U.S. War Crimes Act, punishable by life in prison or possibly the death penalty. To date, however, no U.S. soldiers, not even the perpetrators of the 1968 My Lai massacre in Vietnam, have been charged with war crimes under U.S. law. If the Marines were charged for war crimes, it would likely be in a federal district court rather than before a court-martial, experts say.

Are commanding officers likely to be charged?

It is unlikely the Marines' superiors will be found guilty in a criminal court, says Elizabeth Hillman, an associate professor at Rutgers School of Law-Camden, because of the difficulty "of drawing that line." Even the chief U.S. lieutenant behind My Lai, William Calley, though initially sentenced to life in prison for premeditated murder, in the end served less than four years of house arrest before being released, Hillman says. Also, in the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse case, where experts say a greater case of command responsibility was present, no senior officers were prosecuted. However, if evidence of a larger cover-up emerges, legal experts say the commanding officers could be charged with obstruction of justice or criminal negligence, which could result in a dishonorable discharge or up to five years of confinement.

Can the Iraqi government try U.S. soldiers suspected of war crimes?

It's highly unlikely. Though international lawyers say no formal Status-of-Forces agreement was signed between Iraq and the United States after the fall of Saddam in 2003, L. Paul Bremer III, then-head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, issued CPA Order 17, which exempts all U.S. government employees in Iraq—military, civilian, and contractors—from Iraqi legal process. Even without this order, however, "the idea that any American soldier could be tried in Iraq is ludicrous," says Peter Danchin, an expert on international law at Columbia University. "It's purely for domestic consumption," he adds, referring to Iraqi Prime Minister's Nouri al-Maliki's recent calls for Iraq's judiciary to involve itself in the investigation.

Are the Marines expected to be found guilty?

Legal experts say the evidence is pretty convincing the Marines engaged in war crimes and the willful killing of unarmed civilians in Haditha. Still, they say it is unlikely the Marines will face the death penalty. "There's a real resistance to trying soldiers for acts done in the midst of a brutal insurgency," Danchin says. "There's no way anyone in the military or [the Bush] administration has any interest in soldiers being severely punished. I suspect they'll get a period of years. Once the media spotlight moves on and everyone forgets about it, they'll be let out."

What is the expected fallout from Haditha?

Experts say the incident, if proven true, could further damage the U.S. reputation abroad. “If it turns out that innocents were killed in a fit of rage, I think there will be a fairly big reaction, just as there was to Abu Ghraib, not only in Iraq but in the wider Middle East,” Colonel Mansoor says. “It will also be used by our enemies for propagandistic purposes.” In the United States, he says Haditha will likely have a “solidifying impact” rather than a “shifting effect” on American public opinion of the war, given the fact that most Americans already disapprove of the U.S. handling of the war. But Hillman says she is not surprised some Americans, based on news reports, have come to the defense of the accused Marines. “There’s not going to be blanket condemnation,” she predicts. “I think there’s a sense, as a nation, that we’ve put our young people in vulnerable and frustrating situations and that it’s not fair to blame these people for this.”   

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