Monday, June 05, 2006
George Bush Has No EXIT STRATEGY: With 133,000 Troops Standing Around Waiting To Be Shot; Expect More Haditha's.
By Michael Gawenda
The Age Austalia
Saturday 03 June 2006
What happened just after dawn on November 19 last year in Haditha, an insurgent stronghold in western Iraq, is really no longer in dispute.
US President George Bush pleaded with Americans this week to wait until the inquiries were finished before judging what happened on that autumn morning. But his body language suggested that he already knew that there had been a massacre of 24 civilians by US marines.
Indeed, senior military officers, including chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Peter Pace, have warned Mr Bush to "expect the worst".
Mr Bush promised that as soon as the two military inquiries were completed - one into the killings and the other into whether there had been a cover-up of the incident by senior marine officers - the reports would be released immediately.
"If, in fact, laws were broken, there will be punishment," he said.
Memories have already been revived of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam in March 1968, when the men of Charlie Company, led by Lieutenant William Calley on a search-and-destroy mission to root out Vietcong, killed more than 300 unarmed civilians, including women and children.
Old, grainy black-and-white footage of My Lai is being shown nightly on American television.
While there are clearly differences between the two incidents, there are also striking parallels. Just as in the My Lai region, the marines in Haditha, and in the Anbar province in general, face an insurgency that does not engage in conventional warfare.
According to reporters who have been embedded with them, the whole area is mined with improvised explosive devices. There are constant sniper attacks before the insurgents melt away into the general population. The marines are treated with suspicion, if not outright hostility, by most people. They are constantly on edge, waiting for the next roadside bomb to go off or the next group of snipers to attack them from the rooftops of the houses in which ordinary civilians try to avoid being caught in the crossfire.
And so it was on that morning in November, according to witness reports, that a Humvee of a marine patrol by Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment in Iraq, struck a roadside bomb that killed 20-year-old Lance Corporal Miguel Terrazas.
A short time later, according to detailed and harrowing witness reports widely covered by the US media, a group of four marines led by a staff sergeant, screaming abuse, rampaged down the street in which Lance Corporal Terrazas had died, bursting into houses and killing the occupants, including women and children and an elderly man in a wheelchair, whose three sons and their wives were also killed.
Children who survived the shootings by faking being shot have given graphic descriptions of how their fathers and mothers pleaded for their lives before they were killed. One witness says he saw a taxi pull up in the street and he saw four young men, all university students, get out of the car. They were shot before they could say anything. The taxi driver begged for his life before he too was shot.
There is little doubt that the accounts are accurate. One of the members of the marine patrol who was not involved in the killings has said that his fellow marines must have "snapped" and that it was hard to describe just how tough the conditions were for the marines around Haditha.
For Mr Bush, it could mean a further loss of confidence among Americans in his Administration's handling of Iraq - already at a low ebb - and more pressure on him to sack Donald Rumsfeld, his embattled Defence Secretary.
The findings of the second inquiry, into whether there was a cover-up by senior military officers of the Haditha massacre as well as claims that Haditha was not an isolated incident, might be even more damaging for the Bush Administration and the top brass at the Pentagon.
A day after the killings, US military spokesman Captain Jeffrey Pool said in a statement that a roadside bomb in Haditha had killed a marine and 15 civilians and that "Iraqi army soldiers and marines returned fire, killing eight insurgents".
Two months later, Time magazine ran a story based on videos it had obtained of the bodies of civilians killed in Haditha, which showed they had been shot rather than killed by a roadside bomb. Captain Pool told Time that the videos were "al-Qaeda propaganda".
Then in March, Time published several graphic accounts from eyewitness survivors of the killings. A week later, the US military admitted that the civilians had been shot and that the report that they had been the victims of a roadside bombing was false.
The military then launched its two formal inquiries into the massacre and stood down three officers of the marine battalion involved, including its commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Jeffrey Chessani.
Even then, it was not until Democrat congressman John Murtha, a trenchant critic of the war in Iraq but also a decorated marine veteran who has maintained close ties with the military, gave a news conference at which he said the killings in Haditha had been a massacre, that there was evidence of a cover-up and that the Bush Administration realised it had a major problem on its hands.
Indeed, White House spokesman Tony Snow said that Mr Bush had been unaware of the killings until he read media reports and that he had only been briefed by General Pace this week about the continuing inquiries.
Mr Murtha continues to insist that there was a cover-up, "perhaps going up to the highest levels" of the military. The Washington Post reported that the investigation into how marine commanders handled the reporting of the Haditha massacre has concluded that officers gave false information to their superiors, who then failed to adequately question the reports.
Senior military officers have implicitly accepted that the Haditha massacre, while carried out by a small group of marines, raises serious questions about the training of US forces.
General Peter Chiarelli, the commander of the Multinational Corps in Iraq, has announced that all US forces in Iraq would go through a month-long "ethical training" course that would emphasise "professional military values and the importance of disciplined, professional conduct in combat".
And military spokesman General William Caldwell revealed there were ongoing investigations into three or four other incidents. But he refused to give further details.
The New York Times last night reported that military prosecutors were preparing murder, kidnapping and conspiracy charges against seven Marines and a Navy corpsman in connection with the shooting death of an Iraqi civilian in April.
Earlier this week, Iraq's new ambassador to Washington told reporters that the Haditha killings might not be an isolated incident. He said his cousin had been shot dead by US forces in Haditha last July.Under pressure from a group of retired generals who have criticised the way the war in Iraq was planned and executed and who have called for his dismissal, Mr Rumsfeld has said nothing about the massacre.
But for many Americans who have growing doubts about the war but who have been determined to support the US forces in Iraq - and not repeat what they consider to be the shameful treatment of American soldiers on their return from Vietnam - the massacre will be deeply troubling.
For many, it will be evidence of Mr Rumsfeld's incompetence and apparent lack of concern about the conditions under which the 133,000 American forces in Iraq are fighting and dying. And how some, because of inadequate training and because of the unbearable pressures on them, end up committing unforgivable crimes.
Iraq is not Vietnam, far from it, but this week with the Haditha massacre dominating the news, the Vietnam echoes were impossible to avoid.