Friday, June 02, 2006

Thoughts on Haditha

Below is the latest story from The Washington Post on the alleged killing of civilians by U.S. Marines in Haditha, Iraq. I've been waiting to comment on this because 1. These guys deserve a full and fair hearing before the entire nation passes judgment on them; 2. I know a little bit about Haditha and what a terrorist hell hole it is; 3. Who knows what evidence hasn't come to light yet -- or been misreported by the mainstream media.
These last two points are important. Many people probably hadn't heard of Haditha before the latest news cycle. I know a little bit about it because Andy Davis, the former Army Ranger who shamed the University of Minnesota administration into helping him set up a Veteran's Transition Center, fought there. In fact, it was one of the earliest -- and bloodiest -- encounters of the war.
According to Davis, his Ranger Battallion was sent in to secure the Haditha Dam after a large weapons cache was found near there. Haditha had already been -- and continues to be -- the site of almost daily firefights between Coalition Forces and the bad guys. Why? Because it is one of the few major highways that crosses the Tigris River north of Baghdad. As a result, it's the Iraqi equivalent of the Ho Chi Ming Trail for bringing supplies from Syria to the insurgents, many of whom call Haditha "home."
Davis' unit was equipped and prepared for a six-hour mission, securing the perimeter while the Combat Engineers went in and blew up the weapons cache. Two weeks later, they were still there. It was some of the bloodiest fighting of the war. The Rangers and other units had to be re-supplied by helicopter. After nearly two weeks, the U.S. forces managed to secure the area -- temporarily. Haditha remains a hotbed of terrorist activity today.
Of course, all of this is lost on most of the reporters covering this story. All they know is that some U.S. Marines are accused of commiting atrocities and that's a hell of a story. For the anti-war crowd back home, this is Iraq's Mai Lai. Or at least they hope it is.
But let's step back from the fever pitch of the 24 hour news cycle and look at this. First off, I would ask what other country would not only investigate reports of soldier misconduct in an area swarming with terrorists, but prosecute them as well? It's a short list.
How many genocide trials have we read about in Moscow, prosecuting soldiers from the fighting in Chechnya? And what about our Canadian friends? Didn't they cover up atrocities by an airborne unit in Rwanda? And forget the Iraq regime we just ousted. Saddam Hussein not only didn't flinch at gassing his own people, he didn't hesitate at gassing his own troops when battlefield commanders told him that winds were unfavorable and some of his own soldiers would be killed during a chemical-weapons attack on Iranian forces during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.
Secondly, even if the alleged misconduct at Haditha took place, let's try and keep this in context. It is but one incident among many thousands -- perhaps hundreds of thousands -- of raids, house-clearings, and firefights that our soldiers have engaged in without a hint of scandal. I often make this point when debating gun control. Yes, the murder rates in places like Washington, Denver and L.A. are disturbing (and higher than the death rates in Iraq, I may add), but before you can blame firearms, you have to look at it in the broader context of all the rounds that are fired without incident. While the media tends to focus on every homicide and hunting accident, they do so without context. They ignore the fact that millions -- if not billions -- of rounds are fired safely every year on gun ranges, hunting trips and in competition. Yes, 1,000 deaths a year -- the peak for New York City -- is a tragedy, but when viewed in a broader context it takes on a completely different complexion.
So when we look at stories like Haditha and Abu Ghraib, we should keep it in context. These are isolated incidents, statistical anomolies if you will, amid the hundreds of thousands of other incursions and engagements conducted by our troops.
What makes this all the more disturbing is that we're not only all-too-eager to investigate any hint of improper behavior by our troops in Iraq, but we almost condemn them in the court of public opinion before all the facts are in. Given all the scorn and questions and controversy that has been heaped upon our troops from the very start of the war, the incredibly challenging environment in which they're fighting, and the fact that some are on their third and fourth tours, it just makes you marvel at them all the more.
The Washington Post, New York Times and others can condemn these guys all they want. But until they receive the full and fair trial to which they're entitled, I say, "Semper Fi, Mac."

May 31, 2006
Military Inquiry Said to Oppose Account of Raid
WASHINGTON, May 30 — A military investigator uncovered evidence in February and March that contradicted repeated claims by marines that Iraqi civilians killed in Haditha last November were victims of a roadside bomb, according to a senior military official in Iraq.
Among the pieces of evidence that conflicted with the marines' story were death certificates that showed all the Iraqi victims had gunshot wounds, mostly to the head and chest, the official said.
The investigation, which was led by Col. Gregory Watt, an Army officer in Baghdad, also raised questions about whether the marines followed established rules for identifying hostile threats when they assaulted houses near the site of a bomb attack, which killed a fellow marine.
The three-week inquiry was the first official investigation into an episode that was first uncovered by Time magazine in January and that American military officials now say appears to have been an unprovoked attack by the marines that killed 24 Iraqi civilians. The results of Colonel Watt's investigation, which began on Feb. 14, have not previously been disclosed.
"There were enough inconsistencies that things didn't add up," said the senior official, who was briefed on the conclusions of Colonel Watt's preliminary investigation.
The official agreed to discuss the findings only after being promised anonymity. The findings have not been made public, and the Pentagon and the Marines have refused to discuss the details of inquiries now underway, saying that to do so could compromise the investigation.
When Colonel Watt described the findings to Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the senior ground commander in Iraq, on March 9, they raised enough questions about the marines' veracity that General Chiarelli referred the matter to the senior Marine commander in Iraq, who ordered a criminal investigation that officials say could result in murder charges being brought against members of the unit.
Colonel Watt's findings also prompted General Chiarelli to order a parallel investigation into whether senior Marine officers and enlisted personnel had attempted to cover up what happened.
Colonel Watt's inquiry included interviews with marines believed to have been involved in the killings, as well as with senior officers in the unit, the Third Battalion of the First Marine Regiment.
Among them were Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, whom officials had said was one of the senior noncommissioned officers on the patrol, and Lt. Col. Jeffrey R. Chessani, the battalion commander, the senior official said. Colonel Chessani was relieved of his command in April, after the unit returned from Iraq.
In their accounts to Colonel Watt, the marines said they took gunfire from the first of five residences they entered near the bomb site, according to the senior military official.
The official said the marines had recalled hearing "a weapon being prepared to be used against them."
Colonel Watt also reviewed payments totaling $38,000 in cash made within weeks of the shootings to families of victims.
In an interview Tuesday, Maj. Dana Hyatt, the officer who made the payments, said he was told by superiors to compensate the relatives of 15 victims, but was told that rest of those killed had been deemed to have committed hostile acts, leaving their families ineligible for compensation.
After the initial payments were made, however, those families demanded similar payments, insisting their relatives had not attacked the marines, Major Hyatt said.
Major Hyatt said he was authorized by Colonel Chessani and more senior officers at the marines' regimental headquarters to make the payments to relatives of 15 victims.
Colonel Chessani "was part of the chain of command that gives the approval," Major Hyatt said.
"Even when he signs off on it," the major added, "it still has to go up to" the unit's regimental headquarters.
Colonel Chessani declined to comment on Tuesday when visited at his home at Camp Pendleton, Calif.
The list of 15 victims deemed to be noncombatants was put together by intelligence personnel attached to the battalion, Major Hyatt said. Those victims were related to a Haditha city council member, he said. The American military sometimes pays compensation to relatives of civilian victims.
The relatives of each victim were paid a total of $2,500, the maximum allowed under Marine rules, along with $250 payments for two children who were wounded. Major Hyatt said he also compensated the families for damage to two houses.
"I didn't say we had made a mistake," Major Hyatt said, describing what he had told the city council member who was representing the victims. "I said I'm being told I can make payments for these 15 because they were deemed not to be involved in combat."
The military began its examination of the killings only after Time magazine presented the full findings of its investigation to a military spokesman in Baghdad in early February.
General Chiarelli, an Army officer who took command of American ground forces in Iraq in January, learned soon after the spokesman was notified that the Marines had not investigated the incident, according to the senior military official.
On Tuesday, the White House spokesman, Tony Snow, said President Bush first became aware of the episode after the Time magazine inquiry, when he was briefed by Stephen Hadley, the national security adviser. "When this comes out, all the details will be made available to the public, so we'll have a picture of what happened," Mr. Snow said.

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