Marines Battle Their Past In An Iraqi City

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
Los Angeles Times
February 2, 2007
Pg. 1
A new batch of troops tries to win over Haditha, where 24 civilians were slain by their predecessors.
By Tony Perry, Times Staff Writer
HADITHA, IRAQ — More than a year after two dozen civilians were killed here in what prosecutors call an appalling case of wanton murder by four Marines, a new batch of troops is trying to win the hearts and minds of the public.
But as they patrol the narrow, winding streets and try to protect themselves from a deadly, unseen enemy, the November 2005 incident hangs like dust in the air.
"I think about it because I want to give them the right image about Americans," said Lance Cpl. Bryan Bates, 21, of Tucson, who has picked up a working knowledge of Arabic. "I know some of them feel scared because of what happened. I try to be more friendly."
Complicating the situation is the fact that many residents don't even consider the case, which involves the most serious charges levied against Marines in Iraq, the worst transgression by U.S. forces in Haditha since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
On two occasions, Marines assigned to build trust and goodwill in Haditha were moved to the larger city of Fallouja to participate in major offensives against Sunni Arab insurgents. While the Marines were gone, insurgents flooded into Haditha, massacring police officers and other townspeople who had cooperated with the Americans.
The dozens of deaths have resulted in suspicion and hostility and made the Marine mission here exceedingly difficult and dangerous.
"The betrayal [by the U.S.] of the tribes and the local leadership … has created a climate that we've struggled mightily to make right," said Capt. Matt Tracy, commander of Echo Company of the Hawaii-based 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, which occupies a former school near the town center.
When Echo Company arrived in September, the Marines found themselves under constant attack. The company was averaging a casualty a day in its first 45 days.
"I looked at the numbers and said, 'None of us are going to survive at this rate,' " Tracy said. "I realized we had to fight a different way."
The new methods include berms around the city, controlled access points and a car registration program. If people are caught driving without registration, their keys and car batteries are confiscated.
Officers remind Haditha-bound troops to follow the rules of engagement and the laws of war, both of which call for protection of civilians. A general also lectures them on not being slow to protect themselves against an enemy that is well-armed and known to hide among women and children.
Navy corpsman Patrick Horgan, 36, of Aurora, Colo., said the 2005 case had made troops more cautious.
"Everybody knows to be smart about it and make sure you can take a shot safely," he said. "What happened here has definitely increased awareness about the rules, which I think is important."
But there is also a feeling that only troops who have patrolled the streets of Haditha can understand the pressures the Marines experienced in 2005.
"They were set up for an ambush, it wasn't a massacre," said Cpl. Paul Brodner, 20, of San Diego. "No Marine would do anything like that except if he were fighting for his life."
An Iraqi interpreter working for the Marines, who was with the troops in 2005, says he hopes more information about the slayings will come out during court-martials.
"The Marines were attacked and they responded," said the interpreter, who asked that he be identified only as John. "They made mistakes, but they did what you do when you're ambushed."
Lt. Col. Jim Donnellan said it was only natural that Marines now on patrol think about those members of the Camp Pendleton-based 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, who face criminal charges.
"When a Marine reads about Marines of the same age, and operating in the same city, accused of such heinous things, he can't help but have that in the back of his mind," Donnellan said.
Officers also accused
Courts-martial, which could be held this summer, will also determine the fate of four Marine officers accused of failing to thoroughly investigate the slayings. Military lawyers were in Haditha last month questioning witnesses.
Prosecutors allege that the Marines went on a rampage after one comrade was killed and two were wounded by a roadside bomb. Defense attorneys say the troops were following regulations that allow for throwing fragmentation grenades into a room where armed insurgents are thought to be hiding.
In the months after the invasion of Iraq, the Marines had been making headway in Haditha, a community of about 50,000 along the Euphrates River where many of the male residents worked on the railroad, the hydroelectric dam and the phosphate and concrete plants, which are largely shut down now. Officials and police teamed up with the Americans to provide intelligence about the insurgency.
In April 2004, the Marines were ordered to attack Fallouja after a mob killed four American private security contractors. The men's bodies were burned and two were hung from a bridge.
After the Marines left Haditha, insurgents killed several local officials, rounded up a dozen police officers and killed them before a crowd at a soccer field. They also kidnapped a group of police recruits and beheaded nine of them.
The Marines returned after the White House halted the assault on Fallouja. But the fight was renewed in November 2004, and again the Marines left for the larger city about 100 miles down the Euphrates.
For a second time, murder and brutality ensued in Haditha, including an attack on a female doctor whose hands were chopped off because she wore a short-sleeved blouse.
When the Marines returned in 2005, doors were closed to them and the insurgents were in control.
Police Chief Col. Farouk Tayh Hardan is a former army officer whose brother was among the police recruits kidnapped. He's a hard-liner who would prefer to kill insurgents without such niceties as arrests and trials.
The 2005 case, he said, was tragic but understandable in the chaos of war. Many Haditha residents, he noted, are former Iraqi military officers.
"They know that any military makes mistakes, including with innocent children," he said. "We hope it never happens again, particularly with women and children."
Since the berms went up and the car registration effort began, attacks against U.S. troops have dropped sharply. Sheiks have encouraged tribe members to join the police force and hundreds have done so.
Roadside bombing
Still, duty in Haditha and two smaller cities remains one of the most dangerous assignments in Iraq. Since September, Donnellan's 900-man battalion has suffered 19 deaths, and 132 troops have been wounded. The relative peace was shattered in mid-January when two Marines were severely wounded by a roadside bomb while on a walking patrol.
The 2nd Battalion is scheduled to leave in early spring and another Marine unit has been assigned to take its place. But the long-term prospects for Marines in Haditha are unclear, as the White House reevaluates its strategy for Baghdad and Al Anbar province.
"The last thing any Marine wants is to leave prematurely and see these people suffer, again," Capt. Tracy said.
What happened on Nov. 19, 2005, may also have exacerbated a tendency among Haditha residents to believe tales about Marine misconduct, some thought to be circulated by insurgents or their sympathizers.
Each week Donnellan holds an open meeting with sheiks and others. Much of it is devoted to dispelling rumors or, if one seems plausible, promising to investigate.
Among the recent rumors: The Marines forced women to kneel before them, the Marines shot and killed an Iraqi police officer, the Marines threw oranges at women, an Iraqi police officer shot a colleague and the Marines have done nothing.
"I listen and realize some of it is just … hyperbole that is part of their culture, but some of it is that there is really something bothering them," Donnellan said. "There's a lot of history here, and a lot of it is bad."