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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 screaming."

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 engagement.

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 investigators.

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 mother.

"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 neighborhood.

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 to fall.

"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 the road.

"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 attack.

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 difficult environment.

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 all rooms."

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 Iraqi civilians."

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 ridgeline.

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 house.

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 were shot.

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 deaths.

"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 day.

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.

2007 The Washington Post Company

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