Haditha killings spread over hours

Thursday, June 8, 2006

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- A small group of U.S. Marines alleged to have killed up to two dozen Iraqi civilians conducted a house-to-house hunt that stretched over several hours, while other Marines in Haditha did not intervene, according to an Iraqi human rights investigator.

The Associated Press interview of the activist is the most detailed account yet of Iraqi accusations that Marines went on a rampage after a comrade was killed by a bomb. Two separate U.S. military investigations of the incident are under way.

Thaer al-Hadithi, a member and spokesman for the Hammurabi human rights association, a Sunni Muslim group, recounted with the help of a satellite map when and where Iraqi civilians cowered and sometimes died.

The case, which came to public attention two months ago because of a video released by the Hammurabi group, is threatening to further weaken popular support for the Iraq war in the United States and has tarnished the military's image in Iraq and around the world.

The military, after initially saying the Iraqi deaths were the result of the roadside bomb and a subsequent gunfight with insurgents, has not publicly released updated findings.

But newer accounts, including details from briefings to members of Congress, have indicated at least some of the 24 deaths were the result of deliberate gunfire by a small group of Marines seeking revenge for the bombing, and that their actions were covered up by other Marines in the area who knew or suspected what had occurred.

Iraq also has ordered its own probe of the killings, with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki using unusually strong language to condemn them.

Al-Hadithi's account is mostly in line with other, eyewitness reports. He said he expanded his personal observations at the time with follow-up interviews of other witnesses who saw actions that he could not see from his house. He made repeated visits to the restive town to get information, he said.

Hammurabi chairman Abdul-Rahman al-Mashhadani said Tuesday that his group was investigating other violations of Iraqi civil rights by Western forces in the mainly Sunni Arab provinces of Anbar and Salaheddin to the west and north of Baghdad. He said the group also was looking into violations by Iraqi security forces, militias and tribal clans.

"We are also against terrorism," he said.

Al-Hadithi, 42, said he had been visiting his family in Haditha in western Iraq for a Muslim holiday when he was awakened on the morning of Nov. 19 by an explosion that he later learned to be a roadside bomb that hit a U.S. convoy of four Humvees, killing one Marine.

A native of the town, al-Hadithi was an administrator in the Haditha's main hospital before he took leave to work with Hammurabi, which was set up 16 months ago.

According to U.S. lawmakers briefed by Pentagon officials, the Marines, enraged by the death of a comrade, stormed nearby homes, killing occupants as well as the driver and four passengers of a taxi.

Al-Hadithi offered new details on how that might have happened. He said the roadside bombing took place on a road about 100-150 yards from his family home.

"There was an eerie silence after the explosion," he said in Hammurabi's Baghdad offices.

"Then, we started to hear noises, soldiers shouting, that grew louder and louder," said al-Hadithi, who spoke with a map of the town he downloaded from the Internet.

The first gunshots were heard at around 7:30 a.m., he said, when the Marines moved into the family home of Abdul-Hamid Hassan Ali, a blind and elderly man in failing health. The house is just south of the spot where the roadside bomb went off, al-Hadithi said.

Later, the Marines moved next door to the house of Younis Salem Rsayef and his family.

"There was intense gunfire and I could see a fire at the Rsayef home," said al-Hadithi, who watched from a window at his family home.

One of the 24 bodies taken to Haditha's main hospital late on Nov. 19 was charred, according to Walid Abdul-Hameed al-Obeidi, the hospital director. That was believed to be one of Rsayef's sons, who witnesses said was burned to death after a grenade was thrown into his room.

Ali and his wife Khamisa Toamah Ali were killed along with three of their sons, a daughter-in-law and a grandson, according to witnesses, hospital officials and human rights workers.

In the second home, eight people were killed: Rsayef, his wife, her sister and five children.

"You could tell that someone was killed by the gunfire and then the wailing and screaming of women seconds after the Americans left the house," said al-Hadithi.

He said the Marines stormed the house of Ayed Ahmed, the closest to al-Hadithi's own home, at about 10:30 a.m. There, he said, four brothers, all of fighting age, were ordered inside a closet and shot dead. Everyone else was spared, al-Hadithi said.

At about the same time, a man who stepped out of his nearby house to see what was happening at Ayed Ahmed's home was shot and wounded, according to al-Hadithi. Aws Fahmi, 43, was left to bleed on the street for about two hours before a female neighbor dragged him to safety, al-Hadithi told the AP.

Fahmi's family was not able to take him to a hospital until two days later, al-Hadithi said.

Although the shooting stopped, the security sweep, he said, lasted until about 4:30 p.m. and the Marines did not leave the town.

Al-Hadithi said the Marines imposed a three-day closure on Haditha. They allowed relatives to go to the hospital the day after the killings to collect the bodies and bury them following negotiations with the Americans by the head of the local council, Imad Jawad Hamza. Only close relatives took part in the funeral, said al-Hadithi.

Al-Hadithi said 14 people were detained on the day of the killings, including a woman who was soon released. Of the remaining 13, 11 have been freed and two remain in detention.

He said five men were beaten by the Marines during their security sweep.

Al-Hadithi's account is generally consistent with the sequence of events given to the AP last week by a lawyer for relatives of victims.

Some of the discrepancies in the accounts -- like the number of Marines involved in the security sweep and estimates of how many of them went inside houses -- could have been because they watched the day's events from different homes.

Both men watched from windows at their homes. Al-Hadithi said he had a clear view of two of the houses where killings allegedly took place. Khaled Salem Rsayef, the lawyer, said he could see the site of the roadside bomb as well as the first house stormed by the Marines.

Rsayef has said he learned from conversations with relatives that the shooting was carried out by three or four Marines while about 20 more waited outside. Al-Hadithi said it was difficult to ascertain the number of those involved.

However, he pointed out that since the shootings were not simultaneous, it's possible they were the work of one group of Marines.

About a month after the killings, al-Hadithi said, a Marine major refused a request by the victims' families to offer a formal apology, arguing that the Iraqis were killed in the roadside bombing or caught in crossfire between the Marines and insurgents.

The officer, whose name al-Hadithi said he could not remember, also warned them that the next time a roadside bomb hits a Marine convoy in Haditha he would order an airstrike to level anything within 500 yards.

Al-Hadithi did not attend any of the meetings between victims' families and the U.S. military, but he based his account of what the Marines officer said on briefings from Hammurabi's Haditha representative and conversations with the families.

Al-Mashhadani, Hammurabi's chairman, who lectures on economics at Baghdad's al-Mustansiriyah University, said the organization was publicizing the Haditha incident to make sure it's not repeated.

"At the same time, we want the victims' families to receive a fair compensation," he said.

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