No Justice for Haditha Massacre

In 2003, President George W. Bush launched a “preemptive” war against Iraq, citing imaginary threats to the United States. The invasion inflicted massive loss of life, including massacres like the one at Haditha, but with very little accountability in the field or in Washington, writes Marjorie Cohn.

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.

Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in poster by Robbie Conal (robbieconal.com)

What was the Haditha Massacre? On Nov. 19, 2005, U.S. 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 U.S. Marine Corps spokesman the next day claimed:

“A U.S. 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.” Rep. John Murtha, D-Pennsylvania, 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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, U.S. forces killed 11 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 U.S. military found no wrongdoing by the U.S. soldiers.

Allegations that U.S. 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 U.S. drones flying over Iraqi skies in Baghdad to protect the largest U.S. 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 U.S. 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

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9 comments on “No Justice for Haditha Massacre

  1. Felix-Paul Babin on said:

    The radio spot on Pacifica in New York helped me to find “No Justice For Haditha Massacre”. Marjorie Cohn’s voice is hugely important. PUNISH WAR CRIMINALS. REPARATIONS AND RESTORATIVE TREATMENT FOR VICTIMS. END WARFARE. OCCUPY.

    • Peter Dyer on said:

      On October 1, 1946, the judgment of the first Nuremberg Trial was delivered, including these words: “To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.” Ms Cohn is correct: ultimate responsibility for the Haditha massacre and all other war crimes that flowed from the invasion of Iraq belongs with those at the very top of the chain of command who planned, prepared and gave the orders to initiate this illegal war. This includes, but is not limited to, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.

  2. The problem the military rank have is that initially these guys were following proper procedure. You see, when entering a dark “safe house” where suspected enemies of America may hide, the point man throws a grenade which usually gets people awake and moving. These shadowy figures might be children, grannies, cutthroats or pets–but one cannot afford to take a chance. “Shoot, shoot at anything that moves!” Does get a little sketchy when we realize these terrorists were dragged from their beds and marched outside in sleepwear, lined up against the wall and slaughtered.

    What can we say? Nothing in the Universe is more important than protecting American lives!

    • Frances in California on said:

      lin, if that’s all the better you know, or can think of, just off yourself now and save the Universe the trouble of tribulating you.

    • Can you explain why these onetime buddies of America suddenly became ‘suspected enemies of America’ and why did these American soldiers entered that ‘ dark “safe house” ‘ called Iraq? I hope you are not getting ready to be recruited to ‘serve’ in Iran as a pointman throwing grenades with the philosophy of “shoot, shoot at anything that moves”.

    • AboutFace on said:

      “Nothing in the Universe is more important than protecting American lives!”

      Doing the right thing is more important!

      And you probably wonder why the world hates us.

  3. rosemerry on said:

    When you enter a country on false pretext after twelve years of “sanctions” to cause death, destruction and fear, then tell the invaders that anything goes, all are necessarily terrorists even if they sleep in their own beds in homes with their kids and grannies, what can you expect? If soldiers react with revenge for the killing of their buddy, this is not brave young military men defending our freedoms.
    If ever Yanks thought how other people might feel, and how they would like to be attacked like this (9/11 is hyped up as the worst global tragedy, which even if it were caused as the “report” wrote up, it is not) perhaps they would use brains and negotiations instead of drones and bombs.

  4. incontinent reader on said:

    The disposition of that final case was announced on the PBS NewsHour on January, 24, 2012, the same day as President Obama’s State of the Union Address in which he extolled the military and its “accomplishments” in Iraq, and the juxtaposition was jarring.

    It is an unfortunate fact that the military now seems satisfied with the result and sees the need to move on, having issued “official reprimands” to some of the higher ups and enacted changes in its policies of engagement, and this was brought home in Margaret Warner’s discussion of it with Lt.Col. Gary Solis, and Captain Bing West on the PBS News Hour. A replay of the interview can be seen at: www.http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/military/jan-june12/haditha2_01-24.html

    It was noteworthy that there was no examination of the impact of these “policy changes” or mention on the program of the crimes that continue to be perpetrated, whether by drones, or targeted assassinations, or of the prosecution of those like Bradley Manning, who have had the temerity to disclose their coverup.

  5. From the article:

    “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.”

    Well, this is a crap article and this one reason why. The 5.56mm bullets used by the US military have an initial muzzle velocity of 3,250 feet per SECOND. They are likely to pass -through- a body at any reasonable range.

    Walt