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    Middle East
     Jun 6, 2006
My Lai to Haditha, wars' turning points
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - It would be very difficult, if not impossible, to blame the killing of 24 Iraqis in Haditha last November, or the killing of 11 Iraqi civilians in the village of Ishaqi back this March, on the "stress of war". After Abu Ghraib and other US "mistakes" since 2003, people are much less likely to buy such an excuse from the Americans.

What happened in Haditha can best be described as deliberate homicide committed by soldiers of the US Marine Corps, making them in a sense no different from the al-Qaeda insurgents they are combating.

It is believed that the Haditha massacre was committed to avenge the death of Lance Corporal Miguel Terrazas, a 20-year-old soldier

from Texas who had been killed in a roadside bombing in Haditha in November, triggering the backlash.

The Haditha massacre changes everything in Iraq. It changes the images, loyalties and dreams of the Iraqi people, as well as the honor of the US military. It is a turning point for the Americans, the Iraqis, President George W Bush and new Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

And it came as a blessing in disguise to Arab regimes and masses who are anti-American to the bone, and who only point toward the Haditha massacre and say, "This is what the Americans bring to the Middle East."

Haditha has received huge coverage in the main Arab dailies, particularly in Egypt, Syria, Palestine and Jordan. It is prime news in Iran. The immediate implications of Haditha are yet more empowering of Arab regimes throughout the Middle East. It is another blow for all those who are betting on US intervention in the Arab world, claiming that the Americans will bring democracy to Iraq and the Arabs at large.

Inside Iraq, the Haditha massacre adds to the anti-Americanism boiling among Shi'ites and Sunnis, temporarily uniting them against the United States. Although it occurred in Haditha, a stronghold for the Sunni insurgency, the killings are being condemned by all politicians in the Shi'ite community.

As the world was fixated on Haditha, al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi released yet another troubling speech via the Internet last Friday, calling on the Sunnis to rise against the Shi'ites, whom he labeled "snakes" and criticized their Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, saying he was an "atheist". Yet to avoid stirring a sectarian outburst, the Shi'ites have shown overwhelmingly solidarity with the Iraqi Sunnis in Haditha.

The Haditha event was also loudly condemned by Maliki, a religiously driven Shi'ite whose anti-Americanism had been curbed by the nature of his job since he was sworn into office in May. Unable to remain silent any longer, he used the Haditha event to criticize the Americans, saying that "they have no respect for citizens. They smash civilian cars and kill on a suspicion of a hunch."

The New York Times described his comments as "an unusual declaration". A pro-Iranian, Maliki is not pleased with how the Americans have treated him and his boss and predecessor, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, since their team won last December's parliamentary elections. They ousted Jaafari from office, and empowered the Sunnis at the expense of the Shi'ites, vetoing any plans to appoint religiously driven Shi'ites at the ministries of Defense and Interior.

To put it simply: Maliki will exploit the Haditha event to get back at the Americans for bullying him and for withdrawing support from the Shi'ites.

What happened in Haditha?
On November 19, 2005, US Marine Corps commanders in Iraq said that 24 Iraqis had been killed in Haditha, a small town in Anbar province, as a result of a roadside bomb placed by Iraqi insurgents. Sad but common; there was nothing unusual to the story, since dozens of car bombs explode all over Iraq every single day.

At the time, a marine spokesman distorted the story in a public statement and said that 15 (not 24) Iraqis "were killed yesterday from the blast of a roadside bomb in Haditha. Immediately after the bombing, gunmen attacked the convoy with small firearms. Iraqi soldiers and marines returned the fire, killing eight insurgents and wounding another."

The incident was not reported as a "scandal" with "misconduct" until March 12. Unfortunately for the US troops who committed the massacre, living next door to the building was Taher Thabet, 43, an Iraqi journalist who runs the Hammurabi Organization for Human Rights and Democracy. He heard the bomb that killed the US soldier at 7:15am, and saw angry marines get out of their vehicles and head for four homes on either side of the road. Thabet then heard gunfire, screams - then silence.

The next morning, he visited the house rampaged by the Americans and videotaped everything he saw. He followed up with further footage at the Haditha morgue. He gave the video to Time magazine's correspondent in Iraq, who in turn contacted the marines for an explanation, receiving the same story originally given by the Americans on November 19.

The marines said this was al-Qaeda propaganda against the US. Time, however, did not buy it. Time interviewed Haditha locals, including the mayor, the morgue doctor, relatives of the victims and a lawyer who negotiated a settlement between the marines and the families of those who were killed.

The marines had paid the families, through this lawyer, up to US$2,500 per victim. Time presented all of this to the US military spokesman in Iraq, Colonel Barry Johnson.

The continued nagging of Time journalists reached General Peter Chiarelli, the newly appointed second-in-command of US troops in Iraq. He asked his aides to brief Time on updates "after the investigation" was completed. He was shocked to hear that "there had been no investigations". He ordered a speedy investigation, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was briefed with the findings on March 10.

Bush received his copy on March 11. Then, on March 19, Time's article came out, sending shock waves throughout the White House and Pentagon. Eman Waleed, a nine-year old Iraqi girl, was quoted in Time saying, "I watched them shoot my grandfather, first in the chest and then in the head."

This makes the crime all the uglier: homicide and cover-up. US investigations into the case are currently under way, headed by General Eldon Bargewell, and meanwhile, far away in Washington, former presidential candidate John Kerry has prepared a bill in Congress demanding withdrawal of US troops from Iraq by the end of the year.

Coinciding with the loud outcry over Haditha, Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi told his British counterpart Prime Minister Tony Blair that he was adamant about bringing Italian troops back home. Nobody wants to blacken their image further, and that of their country, with the continued occupation and destruction of Iraq. Nobody, that is, apparently except for Bush.

Was Bush fully informed about the Haditha massacre on March 11? One can only be amazed at how passively he has reacted to an event that could ruin not only his reputation and honor, but that of the entire US military as well.

It is equally amazing how some US commentators, such as David Reinhard of The Oregonian, rudely wrote, "Of course, nobody knows for sure what happened in that small Iraqi village last November 19."

Yet the story has come out. The entire family of Yunis Khalaf, for example, was gunned down in Haditha while he was screaming: "I am a friend. I am good!" His girls were aged 14, 10, five, three, and one year. All of them were killed in cold blood, shot in the head or chest at close range. Among the 25 Iraqis killed at Haditha were an infant and an old man in a wheelchair. He was shot nine times. One girl, aged 12, survived the massacre of her family by playing dead and lived to tell the story to Time.

As the Haditha story was making headlines from Tokyo to Washington, other troubling news was coming out of Iraq. Last Wednesday, a pregnant Iraqi woman was shot dead, along with her cousin, as she was rushing to give birth in Samarra. She entered a "prohibited area" and refused to stop when US troops asked her to do so. Regardless if she understood English, or if she was in labor and unable to stop, she was shot dead. She is survived by her husband and two children, aged two and one.

Then came new accusations against the US military, now blamed for another killing in Ishaqi village north of Baghdad. The British Broadcasting Corp last week aired images of 11 Iraqi citizens killed by the Americans on March 15. The bodies included four women and five children. The oldest was 75 years old. The youngest was six months.

The video was obtained from a Sunni resistance group opposed to the US occupation of Iraq. The US story at the time said that four Iraqis (not 11) had died as US troops raided a building trying to catch Ahmad Abdullah Mohammad Na'is al-Utaybi, a member of al-Qaeda.

Iraqi police challenged the US tale, saying that the number was 11 (including five children and four women), deliberately killed by US troops, who also deliberately blew up the building once they had finished.

Surprising the world, after leaking that 12 marines would face charges for the event, the US military declared that they were innocent on Friday, 24 hours after the BBC film was broadcast. Angry Iraqis are asking: "What kind of a verdict could be reached in 24 hours?"

Two scandals in one week, however, for Bush were simply too much to tolerate. This might explain why the Americans quickly wrapped up the Ishaqi affair, saying that all accusations of a massacre by US troops were "absolutely false".

Memories of My Lai
Daniel Henninger commented on the Haditha massacre in the Wall Street Journal: "The narrative of this story has pretty much set in already: it's another My Lai. We all know they did it, the brass covered up, and prison sentences for homicide are merely a formality."

Many in the US, like Henninger, are drawing parallels between what happened in Haditha and what happened in My Lai, Vietnam. The March 1968 massacre there, when the US Army wiped out an entire village - elderly, women and children, killing more than 300 civilians in one of the worst crimes of the Vietnam War - should be remembered to understand why the US military is acting in such a manner in Iraq.

That single act, more than all the rest, turned US public opinion against the Vietnam War. The US soldiers found no insurgents in the village on the morning of March 16. Led by Lieutenant William Calley, they killed the civilians - primarily old men, women, children and babies. Some were tortured or raped. Dozens were herded into a ditch and executed with automatic firearms.

Calley was convicted in 1971 of premeditated murder in ordering the shootings and was initially sentenced to life in prison. Two days later, however, president Richard Nixon ordered him released from prison. Calley claimed that he was following orders from his captain, Ernest Medina, who denied giving the orders and was acquitted at a separate trial. Of the 26 men initially charged, Calley's was the only conviction.

Senator John Kerry gave a statement to Congress on the Vietnam massacre in 1971 regarding Calley. He said: "I think if you are going to try Lieutenant Calley then you must at the same time, if this country is going to demand respect for the law, you must at the same time try all those other people who have responsibility, and any aversion that we may have to the verdict as veterans is not to say that Calley should be freed, not to say that he is innocent, but to say that you can't just take him alone."

And his words ring loud and clear today, 36 years later, and can be applied verbatim with regard to Haditha and Ishaqi.

Everybody in the Bush administration is responsible for the massacres in Iraq. The officers in charge on November 19. The soldiers who pulled the triggers then lied about it. The marines who did not conduct an immediate investigation into the case. Rumsfeld for sending men with low morals or dignity to Iraq. And finally, Bush. More than anybody else, he is responsible for Haditha, just as he is responsible for Abu Ghraib, Ishaqi and all the other "mistakes" committed by the Americans since they invaded Iraq in March 2003.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.

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