By Marjorie Cohn
They ranged from little babies to adult males and females.
I'll never be able to get that out of my head. I can still smell the blood.
This left something in my head and heart.
-Lance Cpl. Roel Ryan Briones
Last week, Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich was sentenced to a reduction in rank but no jail time for leading his squad in a rampage known as “The Haditha Massacre.” Wuterich, who was charged with nine counts of manslaughter, pled guilty to dereliction of duty. Six other Marines have had their charges dismissed and another was acquitted for his part in the massacre.
What was the Haditha Massacre? On November 19, 2005, US Marines from Kilo Company, Third Battalion, First Marine Division killed 24 unarmed civilians in Haditha, Iraq, execution-style, in a three to five hour rampage. One victim was a 76-year-old amputee in a wheelchair holding a Koran. A mother and child bent over as if in prayer were also among the fallen. "I pretended that I was dead when my brother's body fell on me and he was bleeding like a faucet," said Safa Younis Salim, a 13-year-old girl who survived by faking her death. Other victims included six children ranging in age from 1 to 14. Citing doctors at Haditha’s hospital, The Washington Post reported, "Most of the shots ... were fired at such close range that they went through the bodies of the family members and plowed into walls or the floor."
The executions of 24 unarmed civilians were apparent retaliation for the death of Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas when a small Marine convoy hit a roadside bomb earlier that day. A statement issued by a US Marine Corps spokesman the next day claimed: "A US Marine and 15 civilians were killed yesterday from the blast of a roadside bomb in Haditha. Immediately following the bombing, gunmen attacked the convoy with small-arms fire. Iraqi army soldiers and Marines returned fire, killing eight insurgents and wounding another." A subsequent Marine version of the events said the victims were killed inadvertently in a running gun battle with insurgents.
Both of these stories were false, and the Marines knew it. They were blatant attempts to cover up the atrocity, disguised as "collateral damage." Congressman John Murtha, a former Marine, was briefed on the Haditha investigation by Marine Corps Commandant Michael Hagee. Murtha said, "The reports I have from the highest level: No firing at all. No interaction. No military action at all in this particular incident. It was an explosive device, which killed a Marine. From then on, it was purely shooting people." Marine Corps officials told Murtha that troops shot a woman "in cold blood" as she was bending over her child begging for mercy. Women and children were in their nightclothes when they were killed.
The Haditha Massacre did not become public until Time magazine ran a story in March 2006. Time had turned over the results of its investigation, including a videotape, to the US military in January. Only then did the military launch an investigation. These Marines "suffered a total breakdown in morality and leadership, with tragic results," a US official told the Los Angeles Times.
Murtha said, "Our troops overreacted because of the pressure on them, and they killed innocent civilians in cold blood." Many of our troops suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Lance Cpl. Roel Ryan Briones, a Marine in Kilo Company, did not participate in The Haditha Massacre. T.J. Terrazas was his best friend. Briones, who was 20 years old at the time, saw Terrazas after he was killed. "He had a giant hole in his chin. His eyes were rolled back up in his skull," Briones said of his buddy. "A lot of people were mad," Briones said. "Everyone had just a [terrible] feeling about what had happened to T.J."
After the massacre, Briones was ordered to take photographs of the victims and help carry their bodies out of their homes. He is still haunted by what he had to do that day. Briones picked up a young girl who was shot in the head. "I held her out like this," he said, extending his arms, "but her head was bobbing up and down and the insides fell on my legs." "I used to be one of those Marines who said that post-traumatic stress is a bunch of bull," said Briones, who has gotten into serious trouble since he returned home. "But all this stuff that keeps going through my head is eating me up. I need immediate help."
Murtha told ABC there was "no question" the US military tried to "cover up" the Haditha incident, which Murtha called "worse than Abu Ghraib." His high-level briefings indicated to him that the cover-up went “right up the chain of command."
The Bush administration set rules of engagement that resulted in the willful killing and indiscriminate slaughter of civilians. In particular, U.S. troops in Iraq operated in "free-fire zones," with orders to shoot everything that moves. Attacks in civilian areas resulted in massive civilian casualties, which the Bush administration casually called "collateral damage."
Like other grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions, these acts of summary execution and willful killing are punishable under the US War Crimes Act. Commanders have a responsibility to make sure civilians are not indiscriminately harmed and that prisoners are not summarily executed. Because rules of engagement are set at the top of the command chain, criminal liability extends beyond the perpetrator under the doctrine of command responsibility. George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld should be charged with war crimes.
A few days after the story of The Haditha Massacre became public, US forces killed eleven civilians after rounding them up in a room in a house in Ishaqi near Balad, Iraq, handcuffing and shooting them. The victims ranged from a 75-year-old woman to a six-month-old child, and included three-year-olds and five-year-olds and three other women as well. A report by the US military found no wrongdoing by the US soldiers.
Allegations that US troops have engaged in summary executions and willful killing in Iraq have also emerged from other Iraqi cities, including Qaim, Abu Ghraib, Taal Al Jal, Mukaradeeb, Mahmudiya, Hamdaniyah, Samarra, and Salahuddin. There are similar accusations stemming from incidents in Afghanistan as well.
Many people in Iraq are outraged as the legal books close on The Haditha Massacre. They are also perturbed at the US drones flying over Iraqi skies in Baghdad to protect the largest US embassy in the world that, even after the United States “pulled out” of Iraq, still houses 11,000 Americans protected by 5,000 mercenaries. “Our sky is our sky, not the U.S.A.’s sky,” Adnan al-Asadi, acting Iraqi interior minister, said. The US military left Iraq because the Iraqis refused to grant US soldiers immunity for crimes like those at The Haditha Massacre.
The 24 Haditha victims are buried in a cemetery called Martyrs' Graveyard. Graffiti on the deserted house of one of the families reads, "Democracy assassinated the family that was here."
Marjorie Cohn, a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, is former president of the National Lawyers Guild. She is author of “Cowboy Republic: Six Ways the Bush Gang Has Defied the Law” and co-author of “Rules of Disengagement: The Politics and Honor of Military Dissent.” Her most recent book is “The United States and Torture: Interrogation, Incarceration, and Abuse.” Read her blog at www.marjoriecohn.com .