3 U.S. commanders relieved of duty as Iraqi town mourns its dead

Knight Ridder NewspapersApril 8, 2006 

HADITHA, Iraq—In the middle of methodically recalling the day his brother's family was killed, Yaseen's monotone voice and stream of tears suddenly stopped. He looked up, paused and pleaded: "Please don't let me say anything that will get me killed by the Americans. My family can't handle any more."

The story of what happened to Yaseen and his brother Younes' family has redefined Haditha's relationship with the Marines who patrol it. On Nov. 19, a roadside bomb struck a Humvee on Haditha's main road, killing one Marine and injuring two others.

The Marines say they took heavy gunfire afterwards and thought it was coming from the area around Younes' house. They went to investigate, and 23 people were killed.

Eight were from Younes' family. The only survivor, Younes' 13-year-old daughter, said her family wasn't shooting at Marines or harboring extremists that morning. They were sleeping when the bomb exploded. And when the Marines entered their house, she said, they shot at everyone inside.

The Navy Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) began an investigation in February after a Time Magazine reporter passed on accounts he had received about the incident. A second investigation was opened into how the Marines initially reported the killings—the Marines said that 15 people were killed by the roadside explosion and that eight insurgents were killed in subsequent combat.

On Friday, the Marines relieved of duty three leaders of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, which had responsibility for Haditha when the shooting occurred. They are Lt. Col. Jeffrey R. Chessani, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, and two of his company commanders, Capt. James S. Kimber and Capt. Lucas M. McConnell. McConnell was commanding Kilo Company of the 3rd Battalion, the unit that struck the roadside bomb on Nov. 19 and led the subsequent search of the area.

The Marines' announcement didn't tie the disciplinary actions directly to Haditha, saying only that Maj. Gen. Richard Natonski, commanding general of the 1st Marine Division, had lost confidence in the officers' ability to command.

They were relieved because of "multiple incidents that occurred throughout their deployment," said Lt. Lawton King, a spokesman at the Marines' home base at Camp Pendleton, Calif., to which they recently returned. "This decision was made independent of the NCIS investigation."

The events of last November have clearly taken their toll on Yaseen and his niece, Safa, who trembles visibly as she listens to Yaseen recount what she told him of the attack. She cannot bring herself to tell the tale herself.

She fainted after the Marines burst through the door and began firing. When she regained consciousness, only her 3-year-old brother was still alive, but bleeding heavily. She comforted him in a room filled with dead family members until he died, too. And then she went to her Uncle Yaseen's house next door.

Neither Yaseen nor Safa have returned home since.

Indeed, many in this town, whose residents are stuck in the battle between extremists and the Americans, said now it is the U.S. military they fear most.

"The mujahadeen (holy warriors) will kill you if you stand against them or say anything against them. And the Americans will kill you if the mujahadeen attack them several kilometers away," said Mohammed al-Hadithi, 32, a barber who lives in neighboring Haqlania. With a cigarette between his fingers, he pointed at a Marine patrol as it passed in front of his shop. "I look at each of them, and I see killers."

Haditha, a town of about 100,000 people in Anbar province, undeniably is an insurgent bastion. Around the time of the attack, several storefronts were lined with posters and pictures supporting al-Qaida, although residents said they posted them to appease extremists.

Insurgents blend in with the residents, setting up their cells in homes next to those belonging to everyday citizens, some of them supportive.

There is no functioning police station and the government offices are largely vacant. The last man to call himself mayor relinquished the title earlier this year after scores of death threats from insurgents.

The military wouldn't release statistics, but attacks on U.S. troops are frequent.

Indeed, Haditha has been the site of some of the deadliest attacks against U.S. forces. On Aug. 1, six Marine reservists were killed in an ambush; two days later, a roadside bomb killed 14 Marines traveling in an amphibious assault vehicle just outside the town, the deadliest single attack ever on U.S. forces.

On Nov. 19, according to military spokeswoman Lt. Col. Michelle Martin-Hing, the Marines were hit four separate times by roadside bombs and were fired on multiple times by gunmen they couldn't see.

Three years after the war began, the U.S. military concedes it hasn't figured out how to tell a terrorist from an ordinary citizen in places like Haditha.

A newly poured spot of asphalt now marks the spot where the IED, or improvised explosive device, exploded. It was 7:15 a.m. and the blast was the first IED of the day. Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas, 20, of El Paso, Texas, died instantly. The armed fire attack started immediately, according to the Marines.

There is as yet no official public version of what took place next and U.S. officials familiar with the investigation would discuss the incident only if their names were not used.

According to these officials, a car approached the convoy at about the same time the shooting began. The Marines signaled it to stop and it did. But it was too close to the convoy and when four men jumped out of it, the Marines, suspecting the men had been involved in the IED attack, shot them dead.

Yaseen said he and his brother's family were asleep in their houses about 100 yards away when the explosion woke them. Minutes later, they heard the Marines blocking off the road.

Yaseen, citing Safa's account, said Younes started to prepare the family for the search they knew was coming, separating the men from the women and the children, as is custom during searches.

Younes moved his five children and sister-in-law into the bedroom, Yaseen said Safa told him. There, his wife was lying in bed, recovering from an appendectomy. They waited.

The Marines moved into another house first, according to U.S. officials. In that house, the Marines saw a line of closed doors and thought an ambush was coming. They shot, and seven people inside were killed, including one child. Two other children who stayed in the house survived. A woman who ran out with her baby also survived, military officials said.

Yaseen said Safa told him that her father heard something so he went to the front of the house. Seconds later, Safa said she heard several gunshots. She didn't know it at the time, but her father was dying. Four Marines then moved into the bedroom, where some of her sisters were standing at their mother's bedside, hugging her.

Yassen said Safa told him that one Marine started yelling at them in English, but that they didn't understand what he was saying. The women and children started screaming in fear, which Yaseen could hear from next door. This went on for several minutes, he said.

He said he never heard gunshots, only a long sudden silence.

Desperate, he tried to get next door and find out what happened, but Marines wouldn't let him pass.

"The waiting was killing me," Yaseen said. "We didn't know what happened."

Three hours later, someone knocked at Yaseen's door. He could hear a young voice wheezing and sobbing on the other side. It was Safa, covered in blood and dirt. Yaseen said he couldn't remember what she was wearing; he only saw the blood.

The family was dead, Safa told Yaseen.

Yaseen's wife cleaned Safa up while Yaseen prepared a white flag. Marines were still blocking the area. Carrying the flag, Yaseen, his wife, and Safa ran 200 yards to another relative's house where they have stayed since.

Safa trembled as Yaseen told the story to a visitor. She tried to tell it herself, but she couldn't. "My father told us to gather in one room, so the Americans could search," she said. And then she started to cry.

Yaseen said that Safa told him that four soldiers came into the bedroom, but only one did the yelling. Her mother, who had heard the shooting asked: "What did you do to my husband?" Her sisters, mother and aunt were crying. And then the one soldier who had been yelling started shooting.

Frightened, Safa fainted. She thought she had died. When she awoke, she remembered seeing her mother still lying in bed. Her head was blown open. She looked around and heard her 3-year-old brother, Mohammed, moan in pain. The blood was pouring out of his right arm.

"Come on, Mohammed. Get up so we can go to uncle's house," she told her brother. But he couldn't.

In the same room where her mother, aunt and sisters lay dead, Safa grabbed the toddler, sat down and leaned his head against her shoulder. She put his arm against her chest and held it to try to stop the bleeding. She kept holding and talking to him until, like everyone else in the room, he too was silent. And then she ran next door.

Yaseen didn't see the rest of his brother's family until he went to Haditha Hospital the next day to pick up the bodies. Dr. Waleed Abdul Khaliq al-Obeidi, the director of Haditha Hospital, said they arrived around midnight, about 12 hours after Safa left her house.

According to the death certificates, Younes died of multiple gunshot wounds to the chest. His wife, who was lying in bed, died of multiple gunshot wounds to the head. The daughters were all shot in the chest. Mohammed bled to death.

Younes didn't have a weapon, military officials confirmed.

According to the U.S. military officials, the Marines entered five houses that day. In the third house, they found a group of women and children and asked where the men were. The women pointed out the house and the Marines left, without firing a round. At that house, they found four men, some of them armed, and shot them dead.

Another group of Marines entered a fifth house, which appeared to be a terrorist cell. It had sleeping bags, weapons and a pile of Jordanian passports, military officials said. The men there were detained without incident.

Late last month, an IED exploded near the same spot where Terrazas was killed. Nearby shops started closing in the middle of the day, telling customers they feared being detained. Drivers suddenly stopped and pointed to the rising plume of smoke.

"That might have targeted the Americans," one driver said to another stopped and fearful about what to do next. "The Americans are coming."

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(A Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent who can't be named for security reasons reported from Haditha. Youssef wrote the story from Baghdad.)

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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