Death in Haditha
Eyewitness Accounts in Report Indicate Marines Gunned
Down Unarmed Iraqis in the Aftermath of a Roadside
Bombing in 2005
By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
01/06/07 "Washington Post" -- -- U.S. Marines gunned
down five unarmed Iraqis who stumbled onto the scene of
a 2005 roadside bombing in Haditha, Iraq, according to
eyewitness accounts that are part of a lengthy
investigative report obtained by The Washington Post.
Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich, the squad's leader, shot
the men one by one after Marines ordered them out of a
white taxi in the moments following the explosion, which
killed one Marine and injured two others, witnesses told
investigators. Another Marine fired rounds into their
bodies as they lay on the ground.
"The taxi's five occupants exited the vehicle and
according to U.S. and Iraqi witnesses, were shot by
Wuterich as they stood, unarmed, next to the vehicle
approximately ten feet in front of him," said a report
by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service on the
incident that runs thousands of pages.
One of the witnesses, Sgt. Asad Amer Mashoot, a
26-year-old Iraqi soldier who was in the Marine convoy,
told investigators he watched in horror as the four
students and the taxi driver fell. "They didn't even try
to run away," he said. "We were afraid from Marines and
we saw them behaving like crazy. They were yelling and
The shootings were the first in a series of violent
reactions by Marines on the morning of Nov. 19, 2005
that left 24 civilians -- many of them women and
children -- dead, in what some human rights groups and
Iraqis have called a massacre by U.S. troops.
The report, which relied on hundreds of interviews with
Marines, Iraqi soldiers and civilian survivors conducted
months after the incident, presents a fragmented and
sometimes conflicting chronicle of the violence that
day. But taken together, the accounts provide evidence
that as the Marines came under attack, they responded in
ways that are difficult to reconcile with their rules of
Four Marines were charged with murder last month in
connection with the civilian deaths in Haditha: Wuterich,
who faces 13 counts of unpremeditated murder; Sgt.
Sanick P. Dela Cruz; Lance Cpl. Justin L. Sharratt; and
Lance Cpl. Stephen B. Tatum. Each faces the possibility
of life in prison if convicted.
Through their lawyers, three have argued that they
behaved appropriately while taking fire on a chaotic
battlefield, and that the civilian deaths were a
regrettable but unavoidable part of warfare in an
especially dangerous area. Dela Cruz's attorney has
declined to comment.
The Marine Corps also has charged four officers with
failing to investigate and fully report the slayings:
Lt. Col. Jeffrey R. Chessani, Capt. Lucas M. McConnell,
Capt. Randy W. Stone and Lt. Andrew A. Grayson.
The Marines told investigators that they believed they
were authorized to fire freely inside two houses they
raided in the minutes following the taxi shootings,
after concluding that insurgents were firing on them.
After an officer ordered them to "take" one of the homes
and Wuterich commanded them to "shoot first, ask
questions later," the Marines considered the houses
"hostile," according to sworn statements to
Marine officials have accused the troops of failing to
identify their targets before using grenades and guns to
kill 14 unarmed people in the houses, including several
young children in their pajamas, in a span of about 10
minutes, according to the documents.
Safah Yunis Salem, 13, who said she played dead to avoid
being shot, was the only person to survive the Marine
attack on the second house. Her sister Aisha, 3, was
shot in the leg and died; her brother Zainab, 5, was
killed by a shot to the head. She said she lost five
other members of her family in the room, including her
"He fired and killed everybody," Safah said. "The
American fired and killed everybody."
Numerous Marine officers in the chain of command in Iraq
-- including a major general -- knew about the civilian
deaths almost immediately but did not launch an
investigation for months, according to interview
transcripts. Some lower-level officers did not believe
that the Marines had done anything inappropriate, while
high-ranking officers had limited information about the
incident and did not inquire further.
A Routine Mission Turns Violent
The report provides a detailed narrative of the events
leading to the violence in Haditha. The day began about
6 a.m., when Lance Cpl. Salvador A. Guzman Jr. awoke at
Firm Base Sparta and members of his squad learned they
would be bringing fresh Iraqi troops to a traffic
checkpoint in Haditha. He bumped into Lance Cpl. Miguel
"T.J." Terrazas, who joked that "we were going to get
hit by an improvised explosive device one day because we
travel so much," Guzman told investigators.
The Marines left the base at about 6:45 a.m. and made
the personnel changes by about 7 a.m.; then they turned
their four-vehicle convoy around and headed back.
Sharratt, in the turret of the first Humvee, waved a
white sedan over to the side of "Route Chestnut," and as
it slid to the south shoulder a blast rocked the
Terrazas, who was driving the fourth Humvee, was killed
instantly by the remotely detonated propane tank, which
shredded the front of the vehicle and launched it into
the middle of the road. Another Marine, severely
injured, was trapped in the wreckage.
Marines who rushed to help told investigators they took
enemy rifle fire from several locations on the north and
south sides of the road. Navy Hospitalman Brian D. Whitt
said he could see bullet impacts near his feet and
noticed men with rifles disappearing from atop a house
to the north. Some of the fire appeared to be coming
from behind the white taxi.
The Marines concurred that they were under fire from all
sides, indicating that the incident was part of a
complex insurgent attack that lasted much of the day.
One Marine and two Iraqi soldiers told investigators
that the men who had been in the taxi were standing in a
line outside it, some with their hands in the air, when
Wuterich began to fire on them.
Wuterich said the men got out of the car, and he shot
them because he considered them a threat. But Dela Cruz
said the men were standing in a line when they started
"As I crossed the median I saw one of the Iraqi
civilians, who was standing in the center of the line,
drop to the ground," Dela Cruz told investigators.
"Immediately afterwards another Iraqi standing by him
raised his hands to his head. I then heard other small
arms fire and looked to my left and saw Sgt. Wuterich
kneeling on one knee and shooting his M16 in the
direction of the Iraqi civilians."
Dela Cruz told investigators that he pumped bullets into
the bodies of the Iraqi men after they were on the
ground and later urinated on one of them.
Minutes later, a Quick Reaction Force arrived from the
Marine base, bringing Lt. William T. Kallop, the first
officer on the scene. Kallop told investigators he began
to receive enemy fire almost immediately. About that
time, Cpl. Hector A. Salinas spotted a man firing at the
squad from the corner of a house on the south side of
"Salinas then stated that he could see the enemy so
Kallop told them to 'take the house,' " according to an
NCIS summary of an interview with Kallop. The interview
provides the first evidence that an officer ordered the
Richard McNeil, a lawyer who represents Kallop, declined
to comment about him or his role, but he warned that
"typically in an NCIS investigation, the narratives are
always slanted to the interpretation of the government."
Wuterich, Salinas, Tatum and Lance Cpl. Humberto M.
Mendoza formed a team to attack the house, launching
grenades first and then busting through the door.
"I told them to treat it as a hostile environment,"
Wuterich told investigators. "I told them to shoot
first, ask questions later."
Defense attorneys have argued that the men were
following their "rules of engagement" when they shot
into the homes, using effective techniques in a
The Marine division's rules-of-engagement card in effect
at the time in western Iraq instructed Marines to
"ALWAYS minimize collateral damage" and said that
targets must be positively identified as threats before
a Marine can open fire. It also told Marines that
"nothing on this card prevents you from using all force
necessary to defend yourself."
After entering the first house through a kitchen, Tatum
told investigators, he heard what he believed was an
AK-47 rifle being "racked," or readied to fire, around a
corner. He and Salinas tossed grenades into the room,
according to the documents. Waleed Hasan, 37, was
killed. Khamisa Ali, 66, was shot dead in the hallway
before four others were killed in a bedroom by grenades
and rifle fire.
Nine-year-old Eman Hamed told investigators that a
grenade landed near her grandfather's bed and exploded,
sending shrapnel through the room. Her mother and
4-year-old brother were killed as she huddled, injured,
with another brother, Abid, 6, who survived. "All
rooms," Abid told investigators. "They were shooting in
Several Marines said they quickly cleared the home by
fire, shooting through the dust, debris and darkness to
eliminate what they believed was a threat.
From there, Wuterich, Mendoza and Tatum said, they moved
to a second house after suspecting that insurgents might
have escaped. Mendoza told investigators that the
Marines approached the second house the same way they
did the first, treating it as hostile, according to his
sworn statement. Mendoza said he shot a man, 43-year-old
Yunis Rasif, through the house's glass kitchen door.
"I fired because I had been told the house was hostile
and I was following my training that all individuals in
a hostile house are to be shot," Mendoza told
investigators. The Marines then entered the house and
tossed grenades before firing into a back bedroom, which
they later found was filled with women and children.
"Knowing what I know now, I feel badly about killing
Iraqi civilians who may have been innocent, but I stand
fast in my decisions that day, as I reacted to the
threats that I perceived at the time," Tatum said. "I
did not shoot randomly with the intent to harm innocent
Jack Zimmerman, Tatum's attorney, declined to comment
yesterday but decried the publication of the documents.
"The ethical rules that govern lawyers prohibit me from
even discussing the matter," he said.
Mashoot, the Iraqi soldier who was with the Marines,
said he thought the attack on the houses was warranted
because the entire convoy was taking fire. Investigators
noted that he believed the Marines "had justification"
because they were "defending themselves."
Another group of Marines, including Dela Cruz,
simultaneously went to the north side of the road and
found a dwelling that they believed was the "trigger
house" for the roadside bomb. They took several Iraqis
into custody, according to the documents, but did not
shoot anyone in a search of several houses. Another man
was shot after Marines observed him running along a
A few hours later, Sharratt, Wuterich and Salinas
approached a third and fourth house after noticing men
they said were peering at them suspiciously.
The investigative reports show that what happened there
is unclear. Iraqi witnesses said the Marines angrily
separated men and women into two lines before marching
the men into the fourth house and shooting them. The
three Marines told investigators they were searching for
the men they had seen and separated the women into a
safe area before Wuterich and Sharratt entered the
At First, No Inquiry
The military did not launch an inquiry of the Haditha
deaths until a Time magazine reporter began to inquire
about the incident two months later. Marine officers
told investigators the reason was simple: Nothing in the
reports they received from the field caused them to
believe that a probe was warranted.
Investigators appear to have found little evidence that
Marines on the ground or at headquarters tried to
conceal the day's events. But Dela Cruz told
investigators that Wuterich asked him to back up claims
that the men in the taxi were trying to flee before they
Puckett, Wuterich's lawyer, challenged Dela Cruz's
assertion: "Staff Sergeant Wuterich adamantly denies
asking anybody to lie or change their story."
The documents show that Marines in Kilo Company, 3rd
Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, reported the incident to
their base as it was happening and made clear that there
were a significant number of civilian casualties. Though
at first the Marines classified eight of the civilians
as insurgents, they quickly reported that at least 15
civilians had been killed in what they called
"crossfire" with the enemy.
The events came amid heavy insurgent attacks in Haditha
that day that ultimately prompted Marines to call in
airstrikes on suspected insurgent homes. The hectic
nature of the day caused some early reports to be
confused and inaccurate, Marines told investigators.
The Kilo Company commander, McConnell, told his Marines
on the day of the attacks that they had done a good job,
according to an investigative summary in the NCIS
report. Investigators wrote that McConnell did not want
to question his Marines on a day they lost a comrade but
that he informed his superiors about the civilian
"There was never a hint whatsoever that these kids did
anything improper. Not one," said Kevin McDermott, a
lawyer who represents McConnell.
Marine officers said Chessani, the Marines' battalion
commander, informed his superior, the regimental
commander, of the civilian casualties the day they
occurred and was told by that officer, Col. Stephen W.
Davis, that no investigation was needed.
"There was nothing out of the ordinary about any of
this, including the number of civilian dead, that would
have triggered anything in my mind that was out of the
norm," Davis told military investigators, according to a
transcript. "There is nothing about this incident that
jumped out at any point to us."
Maj. Gen. Richard A. Huck, the division commander, told
investigators he learned about the civilian casualties
on the day they occurred and believed that they were the
result of a roadside bomb and the ensuing gunbattle
between Marines and insurgents. Huck visited Haditha
three days later and was briefed on the incident.
"Nothing in the brief caused any concern to me," Huck
told investigators. "I do not recall if the brief
discussed the number of Iraqis killed that day, but I do
recall the brief discussing Marines clearing houses
following the IED attack."
McConnell and Chessani have been charged in the case;
Huck and Davis have not. Attempts to reach Chessani or
an attorney for him were not successful.
In December 2005, the Marines authorized $38,000 in
condolence payments to the families of the civilians
killed in the first two houses, and Chessani, in early
February, explained the payments in a memo. "The enemy
chose the time and place of his ambush. Without callous
disregard for the lives of innocent bystanders, the
enemy would not have chosen to fight from the bedrooms
and living rooms of civilian-occupied houses," he wrote.
The official inquiry began two weeks later, after the
Time reporter sent a list of questions about the
incident to Marine officials in Iraq. In his e-mail, the
reporter raised the possibility that Marines had
massacred civilians and executed the men from the taxi,
based in part on a videotape made by an activist a day
after the incident.
Huck told investigators he dismissed the allegations,
believing they were part of an insurgent campaign to
smear the Marines. Other Marine officers, such as Davis,
also believed that the allegations were outlandish.
But Maj. Samuel H. Carrasco, then a battalion operations
officer, said he and the battalion executive officer
suggested an investigation to Chessani. Carrasco told
investigators that "Lt. Col. Chessani then shouted, 'My
men are not murderers.' "
The first investigation, by Army Col. Gregory Watt,
ordered by Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, then the top
field commander in Iraq, essentially supported the
Marines' accounts of events. Watt determined that the
troops had reason to be suspicious of the men in the
white car and concluded that while they did not
positively identify targets in the houses, it might have
been "unrealistic to expect" on the battlefield that
He also found no indication that the Marines
"intentionally targeted, engaged and killed
noncombatants," but he suggested a criminal
investigation nonetheless. The NCIS investigation began
March 12, leading to last month's charges.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.
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