Sunday, June 11, 2006

Marine Sergeant Says Haditha Was Not a Massacre

(Cross-posted at Blanton's and Ashton's.)

A new narrative of events at Haditha has emerged -- this time from a Marine sergeant who told his attorney that the 24 civilians were killed unintentionally after the Marines went after insurgents firing at them from inside a house.

A sergeant who led a squad of Marines during the incident in Haditha, Iraq, that left as many as 24 civilians dead said his unit did not intentionally target any civilians, followed military rules of engagement and never tried to cover up the shootings, his attorney said.

Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich, 26, told his attorney that several civilians were killed Nov. 19 when his squad went after insurgents who were firing at them from inside a house. The Marine said there was no vengeful massacre, but he described a house-to-house hunt that went tragically awry in the middle of a chaotic battlefield.
Wuterich's version contradicts that of the Iraqis, who described a massacre of men, women and children after a bomb killed a Marine. Haditha residents have said that innocent civilians were executed, that some begged for their lives before being shot and that children were killed indiscriminately.

Wuterich told his attorney in initial interviews over nearly 12 hours last week that the shootings were the unfortunate result of a methodical sweep for enemies in a firefight. Two attorneys for other Marines involved in the incident said Wuterich's account is consistent with those they had heard from their clients.
On Nov. 19, Wuterich's squad left its headquarters at Firm Base Sparta in Haditha at 7 a.m. on a daily mission to drop off Iraqi army troops at a nearby checkpoint. "It was like any other day, we just had to watch out for IEDs [improvised explosive devices] and any other activity that looked suspicious," said Marine Cpl. James Crossan, 21, in an interview from his home in North Bend, Wash. He was riding in the four-Humvee convoy as it turned left onto Chestnut Road, heading west at 7:15 a.m.

Shortly after the turn, a bomb buried in the road ripped through the last Humvee. The blast instantly killed the driver, Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas, 20. Crossan, who was in the front passenger seat, remembered hearing someone yell, "Get some morphine." Then he passed out.
Wuterich told Puckett that no one was emotionally rattled by Terrazas's death because everyone had a job to do, and everyone was concerned about further casualties. As Wuterich began briefing the platoon leader, Puckett said, AK-47 shots rang out from residences on the south side of the road, and the Marines ducked.

A corporal with the unit leaned over to Wuterich and said he saw the shots coming from a specific house, and after a discussion with the platoon leader, they decided to clear the house, according to Wuterich's account.

"There's a threat, and they went to eliminate the threat," Puckett said.

A four-man team of Marines, including Wuterich, kicked in the door and found a series of empty rooms, noticing quickly that there was one room with a closed door and people rustling behind it, Puckett said. They then kicked in that door, tossed a fragmentation grenade into the room, and one Marine fired a series of "clearing rounds" through the dust and smoke, killing several people, Puckett said.

The Marine who fired the rounds -- Puckett said it was not Wuterich -- had experience clearing numerous houses on a deployment in Fallujah, where Marines had aggressive rules of engagement.

Although it was almost immediately apparent to the Marines that the people dead in the room were men, women and children -- most likely civilians -- they also noticed a back door ajar and believed that insurgents had slipped through to a house nearby, Puckett said. The Marines stealthily moved to the second house, kicking in the door, killing one man inside and then using a frag grenade and more gunfire to clear another room full of people, he said.

Wuterich, not having found the insurgents, told the team to stop and headed back to the platoon leader to reassess the situation, Puckett said, adding that his client knew a number of civilians had just been killed.

Neighborhood residents have offered a different account, saying that the Marines went into the houses shooting and ignored pleas from the civilians to spare them.

Marine Reserve Lt. Jonathan Morgenstein, who served in Anbar province from August 2004 to March 2005, said that the account offered by Wuterich's attorney surprised him a bit.

"When I was in Iraq," Morgenstein said, "the Anbar-wide ROEs [rules of engagement] did not say we had the authority to knock down any door, throw in a hand grenade and kill everyone." Still, he said, if someone in a house in Haditha was shooting at them, the Marines' response may have been within procedure. "If they felt they took fire from that house, then that may be authorized."

A Marine who served near Haditha in November said it was not unusual for Marines to respond to attacks "running and gunning" and that it was standard practice to spray rooms with gunfire when threatened. "It may be a bad tactic, but it works," he said. "It keeps you alive."

Booman Tribune notes that Sgt. Wuterich's account differs from previous reports of what happened at Haditha in a number of important ways:
    • Previous reports make no mention of the use of fragmentation grenades by the Marines. Iraqi Witnesses claimed only bullets were used to kill civilians.
    • Reuters reported that the US Military confirmed the claim by Haditha doctors that all the civilians were shot.
    • Wuterich claimed that he stopped his team after killing the residents of the second house. Iraqi witnesses claim that Marines moved on to a third house and killed people in there, as well.
    • Wuterich claims that four "military aged men" in an unmarked white car attempted to run away, and were shot while fleeing on foot, pursuant to standard rules of engagement. Iraqi witnesses claimed that the car was a taxi which had arrived on the scene carrying students, and that when the driver put the car in reverse to back away, the Marines fired, killing the four students while they were still in the car.
    • The two accounts also differ on the timing. Wuterich claims that the four men in the car were shot before any Marine entered the houses. The Iraqi witnesses from Haditha claim that the car arrived on the scene after the houses had already been fired upon.
    • Wuterich's account makes no mention of either the Marines burning the houses or of airstrikes dropping bombs on houses, both of which have been previously reported. Alleged images of the victims appear to show blackened corpses with burn marks.

Cori Dauber, a conservative blogger, says that using overly aggressive rules of engagement that result in civilian deaths is not the same thing as intentionally killing civilians:

What he provides is plenty of grist for the mill, because assuming what he's saying is completely accurate there's quite a debate to be had here over whether or not the Marines are operating with appropriate Rules of Engagement. However, what he's saying also provides a competing narrative that explains Haditha in a completely different light. It's possible that what happened resulted from ROEs that are too aggressive -- or that the Marines misunderstood -- but that's a far cry from "cold-blooded" intentional murder and a far cry from a war crime.

It's really a no-brainer as far as I'm concerned that the rules of engagement are set at Highly Aggressive. The reason for that is not hard to figure out; in fact, the Marine quoted in the last paragraph of my quote from the WaPo names it:

A Marine who served near Haditha in November said it was not unusual for Marines to respond to attacks "running and gunning" and that it was standard practice to spray rooms with gunfire when threatened. "It may be a bad tactic, but it works," he said. "It keeps you alive."

Of course, it's still an open question whether the Marines really were fired at from those houses; if they were not, what was it that made them feel threatened?

If they did have reason to feel threatened, though, what does it say about rules of engagement that allow U.S. soldiers to shoot indiscriminately while running ("running and gunning")? What does it say about the relative value of American and Iraqi lives that kicking in a door and throwing in a fragmentation bomb without knowing who is inside and then, before the smoke has cleared, spraying the room with gunfire, could actually conform with the rules of engagement and not constitute the intentional killing of civilians?

Clearly and unarguably it says that American lives are more important, and are worth more, than Iraqi lives. If you have to kill Iraqi women and children to save a Marine's life, so be it.

That stance contradicts the claim endlessly made by war supporters that Iraqis are not being demonized; that they are not regarded as less than human; that our men and women in Iraq know what Iraqis have gone through and sympathize with them. Most important, the assumption that it's legitimate for Marines to kill innocent Iraqi women and children if those Marines "feel threatened," gives the lie to the notion that the purpose of this war is to free Iraqis from the pain and suffering they have endured for so many years.

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