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Remembering the Haditha massacre 10 years later

The tragic events of November 19, 2005 began just after dawn when four Humvees from the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines were traveling in a convoy through Haditha, a particularly violent insurgent stronghold on the Euphrates River about 150 miles (240 km) northwest of Baghdad. Suddenly, a roadside bomb blasted the last vehicle in the convoy, killing popular 20-year-old Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas, wounding two others and rattling—and infuriating—the survivors.

Minutes later, the Marines stopped a nearby taxi. The driver and his four teenage passengers, students at Saqlawiyah Technical Institute, got out of the cab and raised their hands in the air. They were then summarily executed by Sergeants Frank Wuterich and Sanick Dela Cruz. Dela Cruz then sprayed the bodies with bullets and, in a rage, urinated on one of them. There was no evidence whatsoever that the five victims had anything to do with the roadside bomb but, as Dela Cruz would later testify, “the emotion took over.”

Dela Cruz also testified that Wuterich, who was deeply affected by seeing Terrazas’ mangled body, told his men that “if we get hit again, we should kill everyone in that vicinity.” Wuterich also told Dela Cruz that if anyone asked about the killings he should lie and say the victims were shot by Iraqi soldiers as they attempted to run away.

Wuterich didn’t wait until his Marines got hit again before attempting to kill everyone in the vicinity. With orders from Wuterich to “shoot first and ask questions later,” the Marines from 3rd Battalion went house to house and killed every man, woman and child they encountered.

The first house they stormed belonged to the Waleed family. Nine-year-old Iman Waleed survived the ensuing bloodbath but seven of her relatives were murdered. “I watched them shoot my grandfather, first in the chest and then in the head,” the little girl told Time magazine in 2006. “Then they killed my granny.” Her father was gunned down while he read the Koran and prayed for his family’s safety. Iman and her younger brothers huddled in a corner but the Marines had no intention of sparing them. They opened fire and would have killed them were it not for the adult relatives who sacrificed their own lives by throwing themselves over the children. Still, four year-old Ali died.

The Marines, full of bloodlust, quickly moved on to a neighbor’s home where they slaughtered eight members of Safa Younis’ family, including her mother, father, aunt, baby brother and three of her sisters. Some of the victims were shot at point-blank range, others were killed by grenades the Marines tossed into the kitchen and bathroom. Safa, 13, only survived because she’d fainted and gotten splattered with her dead mother’s blood. Her attackers thought she was already dead. Two more homes were raided by the rampaging Marines. Four brothers, who undoubtedly heard the commotion in neighboring homes, tried to hide in one of the residences but were all executed in a closet.

When it was all over, 24 men, women and children, from small children to the elderly, were dead. The perpetrators of the worst massacre of civilians by US troops in Iraq then conspired to cover up their atrocity. So did their superior officers. The day after the massacre, a Marine press release from Camp Blue Diamond in Ramadi falsely blamed the civilian’s deaths on the roadside bomb that killed Terrazas.

A subsequent probe of events called the killings “collateral damage” instead of deliberate murder. Classified documents uncovered in 2011 paint a picture of the dehumanizing reaction of many US commanders to the massacre, with Chief Warrant Officer K.R. Norwood dismissing initial reports of the slaughter as “not remarkable.”

“It happened all the time,” Gen. Steve Johnson, commander of US forces in Anbar province, said of incidents like Haditha. “It was just a cost of doing business.”

But US Rep. John Murtha (D-PA), himself a former Marine and decorated Vietnam War veteran, disagreed with the military’s assessment that the killings were not deliberate, saying “there was no firefight, there was no IED (improvised explosive device) that killed these innocent people. Our troops overreacted because of the pressure on them, and they killed innocent civilians in cold blood.” Incredibly, Wuterich sued Murtha following the congressman’s remarks, claiming he had caused “permanent, irreversible damage” to the Marines’ reputations.

Rep. John Kline (R-MN), a retired Marine colonel, also accused the perpetrators of a cover-up. “There is no question that the Marines involved, those doing the shooting, they were busy in lying about it and covering it up—there is no question about it,” Kline told the Los Angeles Times.

By the end of 2006, eight Marines faced criminal charges or administrative punishment in connection with the Haditha massacre. Wuterich was charged with 13 counts of unpremeditated murder, making false statements to investigators and trying to persuade others to do the same. The others—Sgt. Dela Cruz, Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt, Lance Cpl. Stephen Tatum, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani, Capt. Randy Stone, Capt. Lucas McConnell and First Lt. Andrew Grayson—were charged with offenses ranging from murder to dereliction of duty. Charges against Dela Cruz were dropped in exchange for his testimony against the others.

Charges were later dropped against all of the Marines except Wuterich and Grayson. Grayson was court-martialed for making false official statements, obstruction of justice and attempting to fraudulently separate from the Marine Corps. He was acquitted on all counts. Wuterich was court-martialed for voluntary manslaughter, aggravated assault, reckless endangerment, dereliction of duty and obstruction of justice. Under a plea deal, he accepted guilt for a single count of negligent dereliction of duty and was punished with a rank reduction and pay cut.

Addressing the military court during his trial, Wuterich, a father of three young children, said he “had to accept that my name will always be associated with a massacre, being a cold-blooded baby killer, an ‘out of control’ monster, and a conspiring liar.” He added that it wasn’t his intention to harm any innocent civilians and that his order to “shoot first, ask questions later” was misinterpreted by his Marines; he only wanted them to “not hesitate in the face of the enemy.”

“The truth is, I don’t believe anyone in my squad… behaved in any way that was dishonorable or contrary to the highest ideals that we all live by as Marines,” he insisted.

The Marines paid a total of $38,000 to the families of 15 of the murdered civilians. Iraqis from all walks of life condemned the killings—and the subsequent failure to bring those responsible to justice.

“I was expecting that the American judiciary would sentence this person to life in prison and that he would appear and confess in front of the whole world that he committed this crime, so that America could show itself as democratic and fair,” massacre survivor Awis Fahmi Hussein told the Guardian following Wuterich’s plea deal.

Sgt. Frank Wuterich, who led Marines on one of the most horrific civilian massacres of the century, was later honorably discharged from the Marines.

Victims of the November 19, 2005 Haditha massacre:

Taxi Incident—

Ahmed Khidher, taxi driver.
Akram Hamid Flayeh, student.
Khalid Ayada al-Zawi, student.
Wajdi Ayada al-Zawi, student.
Mohammed Battal Mahmoud, student.

First House—

Abdul Hamid Hassan Ali, 76; grandfather, father and husband. Shot nine times in the chest and abdomen.
Khamisa Tuma Ali, 66; wife of Abdul Hamid Hassan Ali.
Rashid Abdul Hamid, 30.
Walid Abdul Hamid Hassan, 35.
Jahid Abdul Hamid Hassan.
Asma Salman Rasif, 32.
Abdullah Walid, 4.

Second House—

Younis Salim Khafif, 43; husband and father.
Aida Yasin Ahmed, 41; wife of Younis Salim Khafif, killed trying to shield her youngest daughter Aisha.
Aisha Younis Salim, 3; daughter.
Muhammad Younis Salim, 8; son.
Noor Younis Salim, 14; daughter.
Sabaa Younis Salim, 10; daughter.
Zainab Younis Salim, 5; daughter.
A 1-year-old girl staying with the family.

Third House—

Jamal Ahmed, 41.
Marwan Ahmed, 28.
Qahtan Ahmed, 24.
Chasib Ahmed, 27.

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