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New York Times/May 29, 2006

Iraqis' Accounts Link Marines to the Mass Killing of Civilians

BAGHDAD, Iraq, May 28 — Hiba Abdullah survived the killings by American troops in Haditha last Nov. 19, but said seven others at her father-in-law's home did not. She said American troops shot and killed her husband, Rashid Abdul Hamid. They killed her father-in-law, Abdul Hamid Hassan Ali, a 77-year-old in a wheelchair, shooting him in the chest and abdomen, she said.

Her sister-in-law, Asma, "collapsed when her husband was killed in front of her eyes," Ms. Abdullah said. As Asma fell, she dropped her 5-month-old infant. Ms. Abdullah said she picked up the baby girl and sprinted out of the house, and when she returned, Asma was dead.

Four people who identified themselves as survivors of the killings in Haditha, including some who had never spoken publicly, described the killings to an Iraqi writer and historian who was recruited by The New York Times to travel to Haditha and interview survivors and witnesses of what military officials have said appear to be unjustified killings of two dozen Iraqis by marines. Some in Congress fear the killings could do greater harm to the image of the United States military around the world than the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.

The four survivors' accounts could not be independently corroborated, and it was unclear in some cases whether they actually saw the killings. But much of what they said was consistent with broad outlines of the events of that day provided by military and government officials who have been briefed on the military's investigations into the killings, which the officials have said are likely to lead to charges that may include murder and a cover-up of what really happened.

The name of the Iraqi who conducted the interviews for The Times is being withheld for his own safety, because insurgents often make a target of Iraqis deemed collaborators.

Haditha, a sand-swept farming town flecked with date palms on the upper Euphrates River, is in one of Iraq's most dangerous areas, ridden with insurgents in the heart of Sunni-dominated Anbar Province.

Three months earlier, 20 marines from a different unit were killed around Haditha over a three-day span. Fourteen were killed by a bomb that destroyed their troop carrier. Six others, all snipers, were ambushed and killed on a foot patrol. Insurgents appeared later to rejoice and boast about the sniper ambush, releasing a video over the Internet that appeared to show the attack and the mangled and burned body of a dead American serviceman.

Haditha is under the control of insurgents that include Tawhid and Jihad, a name that has been used by the terrorist organization of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, said Miysar al-Dulaimi, a human rights lawyer who has relatives in Haditha and who returned there two days after the killings and spoke to witnesses and neighbors. Mr. Dulaimi said that outside their bases, the Americans controlled almost nothing.

"People are so scared," he said. "They have lost confidence in the Americans. If the Americans show up in the neighborhood the insurgents will come and take away people they accuse of being stooges of the Americans."

But just over six months ago, 24 people in the Subhani district of Haditha faced a different death, witnesses and survivors say.

The killings began after 7:15 a.m., as the neighborhood was stirring awake, when insurgents detonated a roadside bomb in Subhani that killed Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas of El Paso, Tex., as his patrol drove through the area.

According to one United States defense official, who declined to be identified because details of the investigation are not supposed to be revealed, most of the subsequent killings are believed to have been committed by a handful of marines led by a staff sergeant who was their squad leader, although other marines are also under investigation.

In the home Ms. Abdullah escaped from, she said American troops also shot and killed a 4-year-old nephew named Abdullah Walid. She said her mother-in-law, Khumaysa Tuma Ali, 66, died after being shot in the back. Two brothers-in-law, Jahid Abdul Hamid Hassan and Walid Abdul Hamid Hassan, were also killed, she said.

In addition to Ms. Abdullah and Asma's baby, two others survived. One, 9-year-old Iman Walid Abdul Hamid, said she ran quickly, still clad in her pajamas, to hide under the bed with her younger brother, Abdul Rahman Walid Abdul Hamid, when she saw what was happening.

"We were scared and could not move for two hours. I tried to hide under the bed," she said, but both her and her brother, Abdul Rahman, were hit with shrapnel.

Abdul Rahman, 7, said very little about that day. "When they killed my father Walid, I hid in bed," he said.

Hiba Abdullah assumed the two children had died, but she said they were later found at a local hospital.

One Haditha victim was an elderly man, close to 80 years old, killed in his wheelchair as he appeared to be holding a Koran, according to the United States defense official, who described information collected during the investigation. An elderly woman was also killed, as were a mother and a child who were "in what appeared to be a prayer position," the official said.

Some victims had single gunshot wounds to the head, and at least one home where people were shot to death had no bullet marks on the walls, inconsistent with a clearing operation that would typically leave bullet holes, the official added.

Senator John W. Warner, a Virginia Republican who leads the Armed Services Committee, pledged Sunday to hold hearings on the Haditha killings as soon as the military investigation is concluded.

"I'll do exactly what we did with Abu Ghraib," he said on the ABC News program "This Week," referring to hearings. He added that there were serious questions of "what was the immediate reaction of the senior officers in the Marine Corps."

Rep. John Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat and former marine who has become a fierce critic of the Iraq war, said he had no doubt marines killed innocent civilians in Haditha and tried to cover up the deaths. Marine Corps officials, he said on the same television program, have told him that troops shot one woman "in cold blood" who was bending over her child begging for mercy.

In all, 19 people were killed in three separate homes in Haditha, and 5 were killed after they approached the scene in a taxi, survivors and people in the neighborhood said.

Hiba Abdullah said that after the killings in her father-in-law's home, the American troops moved to the house of a neighbor, Younis Salim Nisaif. She said he was killed along with his wife, Aida, and Aida's sister, Huda. She said five children were also killed at that home, all 3 to 14 years old.

There was one survivor, Safa Younis Salim, 13, who in an interview said she lived by faking her death. "I pretended that I was dead when my brother's body fell on me and he was bleeding like a faucet," she said. She said that she saw American troops kick her family members and that one American shouted in the face of one relative before he was killed.

Military officials declined Sunday to comment on details of the killings described by survivors. "The investigations are ongoing, therefore any comment at this time would be inappropriate and could undermine the investigatory and possible legal process," said Lt. Col. Sean Gibson, a Marine spokesman.

David P. Sheldon, a defense lawyer advising a marine under investigation in the case, said what was publicly known about the case "raises a disturbing picture, but I think the situation was very confusing." He added that "the insurgent pressure in that part of Iraq has been particularly virulent" which caused "a very stressful environment."

Three days before a roadside bomb attack that preceded the Nov. 19 killings, another marine from the same unit had been killed when a bomb detonated under his vehicle in Haditha. It was the first combat death that the unit, the Third Battalion of the First Marine Regiment, had suffered on that deployment to Iraq.

Neighbors said that in the third home assaulted on Nov. 19, four brothers were killed by American troops. The wife of one of the brothers, who would identify herself only as the widow of a brother named Jamal, said the four victims were all between the ages of 20 and 38.

The troops forced women in the home to leave at gunpoint, the widow said. Afterward, she said the women heard gunshots coming from the home, but the troops forbade them from returning. Eventually, she said, they went inside and found the bodies of Jamal and three brothers, Marwan, Jassib and Kahatan.

Mr. Dulaimi, the human rights lawyer who traveled to Haditha two days after the killings, said neighbors told him the father of the four victims and owner of the home was Ayad Ahmed al-Gharria, who does odd jobs and has a shop in Haditha. The neighbors, Mr. Dulaimi said, told him the troops killed Marwan first. The three other brothers were killed after they came to see what was happening, he said.

Five more Iraqi men died that day after they approached the American troops in a taxi, according to people in the neighborhood. Four were students and the fifth was the driver of the taxi, and all were between the ages of 18 and 25, they said.

After the killings, Mr. Dulaimi said Haditha clerics and elders led a protest march on the American base near a dam on the Euphrates. From the city's mosques, Mr. Dulaimi said, clerics condemned the killings and said the Americans "promise they will bring peace and security to this country, but what has happened is they are spreading panic, fear and terror among the people."

One person from the neighborhood, Salim Abdullah, said relatives from two of the families had taken compensation payments of as much as $2,500 per victim from American officials who later visited. Relatives of other victims have not taken payments, he said.

The United States defense official said the payments were also a focus of investigators trying to determine whether the killings were improperly covered up. On "This Week," Representative Murtha suggested that the decision to make payments was strong evidence that Marine officers up the chain of command had knowledge of the events. "That doesn't happen at the lowest level," he said. "That happens at the highest level before they make a decision to make payments to the families."

The Marines also face an inquiry into the killing of an Iraqi man on April 26 near Hamandiyah, west of Baghdad. A preliminary inquiry found "sufficient information" for a criminal investigation, the Marines said. Representative Murtha said a marine fired an AK-47 rifle so there would be spent cartridges near the body, making it look as if the victim had been firing a weapon.

A spokesman for the First Marine Division, Lt. Lawton King, said several marines suspected of involvement in the incident had been put in the brig at Camp Pendleton, Calif., or restricted to the base.

An Iraqi reporter contributed reporting from Haditha for this article, and David S. Cloud and Mark Mazzetti from Washington.

 

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