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Witness at Haditha

When a deadly roadside bomb ripped through a convoy of U.S. marines in Haditha, Iraq, the violent American response left 24 Iraqi civilians dead. In his first public comments on the incident, a marine sergeant from Chicago describes the terrible things he saw—and did—that day in November 2005. His account bolsters the government’s case against his squad leader and friend—that the carnage was a massacre of innocents

(page 4 of 5)

Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, who led the marines at Haditha, walks to a hearing with his lawyer, Neal Puckett.

A few days later, Kilo Company celebrated Thanksgiving at Base Sparta. Video taken of the day shows the troops in a festive mood, the men playing cards and digging into plates of turkey with gravy and stuffing. By now, much of Kilo Company was aware that a press release had been issued about the IED attack. The release claimed that a roadside bomb had killed one marine and 15 civilians. No mention was made of women and children. But even if any of the marines were troubled by the statement’s inaccuracy, none stepped forward. Still, by one account, the killings that day—particularly of the women and children—appeared to weigh heavily on the company. Major Gen. Eldon A. Bargewell, who conducted an investigation months after the incident had occurred, wrote in a report, “At least one meeting was held in which company personnel were assured that, although civilians were killed, the marines had done the right thing and accomplished the mission.”

Other evidence gathered months after the fact indicated that Kilo Company members harbored doubts about how “right” their actions had been. Several told Bargewell that they expected an investigation. At least one company photographer took pictures of the five Iraqis killed near the car “because he thought that the account he had received of their deaths was inconsistent with what he observed at the scene.” A second photographer also took pictures because “he also expressed suspicion of their killings,” according to the Bargewell report. In December, even before any investigations were launched, the company made a $38,000 condolence payment to a lawyer representing the families. “Condolence payments do not constitute an admission of wrongdoing,” Bargewell wrote. “Nevertheless, [the payments] involved an amount unusually high.”

Dela Cruz says the incident troubled him from the start. “It was like I was replaying it all the time,” he recalls. “It was going through my head all day. I thought we might have done something wrong after Sergeant Wuterich told me to lie about it.” Dela Cruz had learned to his dismay that the men killed near the car had been unarmed students. He had fired into the bodies of innocents and defiled the corpse of a civilian.

As months passed, however, the matter seemed to disappear into the sad, confused history of the war. But unbeknownst to Dela Cruz or the other marines, a young Iraqi man with connections to an Iraqi human rights organization purportedly had videotaped the aftermath of the killings. His footage showed the bloody, bullet-riddled bodies of children and women, some of whom were in their pajamas, and elderly men heaped in piles inside the homes. Survivors spoke on camera. One girl, who appears to be about 11, said, “We opened the door. My father was dead. We sat there. An American came in and shot at us. I pretended to be dead.” An older man, about 55, said, “They opened the door and threw in a grenade. Then they went in and there were women and children inside. And they eliminated the family, and these children were only two or three years old.”

Eventually the video was shown to Tim McGirk, Time magazine’s Baghdad correspondent at the time. At first, “I was very skeptical,” McGirk told me when I reached him in Israel, where he has since been reassigned. “I didn’t see anything in the tapes that proved to my mind that these people had been killed by the marines other than the fact that they were in U.S.-issued body bags.” McGirk says, however, that after he reviewed the press release issued about the incident, he grew suspicious. “I thought that [the marines were] either misinformed or knew more than [they] were willing to tell me.”

The more he looked into the matter, the more disturbed he became. McGirk says he didn’t have any reason to doubt the veracity of the video, and several factors suggest it was true: “The fact that these people had bullet wounds and not wounds that you’d see from a roadside bomb, that most of the people were killed by gunshots to the head and to the chest . . . and the fact that a representative from the marines came around to the mayor and basically apologized for what had happened.”

In January 2006, two months after the incident, McGirk questioned the marine press office, and eventually marine officials launched an investigation.

Under the headline “Collateral Damage or Civilian Massacre in Haditha?” McGirk’s story was published on March 19th. Scant attention was paid initially. Then, on May 17th, U.S. Rep. John Murtha, an ex-marine and staunch opponent of the war, came forward. A high-ranking marine official had told the Pennsylvania Democrat that what happened in Haditha was “much worse than reported in Time magazine. Our troops overreacted because of the pressure on them, and they killed innocent civilians in cold blood.” Puckett says that some of the facts on which the story was built were later proved inaccurate. McGirk stands by his story.

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The case exploded in the media. President Bush weighed in, saying he was “troubled” by the allegations. Some likened the case to the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. Members of the Navy Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) descended on Base Sparta and began interviewing members of Kilo Company. Rumors that Time would publish another piece made the rounds.

Wuterich grew particularly concerned, Dela Cruz says. Three more times, the sergeant asked Dela Cruz to lie, Dela Cruz testified. Again, Puckett strongly denies the allegation.

Dela Cruz says he initially told the navy’s criminal investigators that he and the Iraqi soldiers shot the men standing by the car. The investigators, however, ordered him to take a polygraph test. When he failed, Dela Cruz says, he decided to come clean. “I just got tired of lying,” he says. “It wasn’t right. And I just wanted to tell the truth.”

Puckett contends that Dela Cruz was not truthful. The defense attorney cites a federal agent’s forensic reconstruction showing that the men by the car had been shot by two people. Dela Cruz says his “dead check” shots account for the extra wounds. Puckett contends that Dela Cruz, not Wuterich, fired the fatal shots. “We’re not saying Sergeant Dela Cruz was wrong to open fire,” Puckett says. “Both [Dela Cruz and Wuterich] are innocent of unlawful behavior.”

In December 2006, eight marines were charged in the deaths of 24 Haditha civilians—the biggest U.S. criminal case involving civilian deaths in the Iraq war. The defendants included Wuterich, Dela Cruz, and two other marines, Lance Cpls.  Stephen Tatum and Justin Sharratt, both of whom participated in the house clearings with Wuterich. Four officers who were not present during the killings were charged with failure to properly report and/or investigate the deaths.

Wuterich faced the most serious charges—murdering the men by the car and seven other civilians and ordering the murders of six more inside one of the houses. Since then, one by one, most of the charges have been either dropped or reduced. In Sharratt’s case, a military judge ruled that Sharratt had acted within the bounds of the rules of engagement. Charges were dropped against Dela Cruz, Tatum, and other marines in exchange for their testimony.

As of May only Wuterich faced court-martial in connection with the killings. Rather than being prosecuted for the original charge of unpremeditated murder, however, he is scheduled to stand trial for voluntary manslaughter, aggravated assault, reckless endangerment, dereliction of duty, and obstruction of justice. If convicted, Wuterich faces a maximum of 160 years in prison, though legal experts say he would likely receive far less time.

Two other officers, Lt. Col. Jeffrey R. Chessani and 1st Lt. Andrew A. Grayson, still await courts-martial on charges of obstruction of justice and impeding the investigation.

Supporters of the marines say that the outcome proves that the marines were the victims of a media witch-hunt spurred largely by Congressman Murtha. Other observers think the case points out the difficulties in prosecuting troops during a time of war. “You look back at My Lai [in 1968, a massacre of more than 300 unarmed civilians, including men, women, and children] and you realize the military doesn’t have a great track record for harshly condemning what soldiers do in war,” Time’s McGirk says. (In My Lai, of the 26 men charged, only Lt. William Calley Jr. was convicted. He was sentenced to life at hard labor but wound up serving only three years under house arrest.)

Still others argue that it is unfair to suggest that because charges were dropped against some marines in exchange for their testimony—or because conflicting evidence made it difficult to win convictions—it meant nothing untoward had happened in Haditha.

The report issued by Bargewell includes, if nothing else, a number of disturbing findings, among them:

—The initial reporting of the event was “untimely, inaccurate and incomplete.”

—Several officers showed an unwillingness to investigate the case “bordering on denial.”

—Marines violated the rules of engagement when they “did not follow proper room clearing techniques in the houses.”

—Potentially exculpatory photographs of the houses cleared by the Wuterich team were lost or destroyed, perhaps intentionally.

Bargewell’s report also points out that Dela Cruz cleared houses and detained suspects without firing a single shot: “This action is in stark contrast to how Sergeant Wuterich and his team handled a similar situation.”

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