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Seeking truth in Haditha killings

Times Staff Writer

HADITHA, Iraq -- When the long history of what military leaders are beginning to call the Long War in Iraq is written, the events in a dusty, tumbledown city hard upon the Euphrates River called Haditha will probably serve as a Rorschach test.

By nearly everyone’s lights, the degradation of prisoners at Abu Ghraib was an outrage and a monumental setback to the U.S.-led mission of winning over the Iraqi people.

But Haditha, where 24 civilians were killed by Marines as they “cleared” the street and houses near where a roadside bomb had just killed Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas, is open to myriad interpretations. Into this maelstrom comes a “Frontline” documentary, “Rules of Engagement,” that tries to get to the truth about that chaotic morning two years ago.

Pick your viewpoint about the war, about the U.S. military, about the media, and there is something in Haditha, the media coverage, the military investigations and the trials to back it up.

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The killings at Haditha were the result of untested, immature leadership that gave tragically imprecise orders to young troops? Check.

The killings at Haditha were the result of a morally brutalizing war in which decent young men from the U.S. are pitted against an enemy that hides behind women and children and hopes to make propaganda out of civilian casualties? Definitely check.

The media, starting with Time magazine, did its job by digging out an awful truth despite misleading statements from officialdom? That’s one interpretation. Here’s another: The media, starting with Time magazine, relied on information from questionable sources and then rushed to judgment.

And what about the investigations that led to charges against four enlisted Marines who did the shootings and four officers who allegedly did not investigate with much vigor?

Were they a sign that the Marine Corps was determined to investigate its own -- to prove to the public that the Marines mean that stuff about keeping their honor clean? Or were they botched by Naval Criminal Investigative Service agents who displayed an appalling predisposition to levy criminal charges regardless of the truth?

There’s evidence to support either assertion.

Well reported

Tonight’s “Frontline” is a yeoman effort, balanced and thoughtful, and with sympathy for the relatives of the Iraqi dead and for young Marines, past and present, who must make life-and-death decisions in the blink of an eye.

To be sure it would have been better if “Frontline” could have gotten cooperation from the prosecution but the military justice system does permit that kind of media scrutiny.

Haditha was a story propelled by politics. Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) immediately linked the events to his opposition to the war. As “Frontline” points out gently, much of Murtha’s over-the-top rhetoric does not appear to be supportable by the facts.

The Haditha story is really two stories: Did the enlisted have the “positive identification” needed to storm three houses and begin firing? Did the officers shirk their duties by being too quick to assume the deaths, while tragic, were the byproduct of “troops in contact” with the enemy?

“Frontline” has chosen to focus on the enlisted, particularly the squad leader, Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, whose court martial is set soon for Camp Pendleton. It was Wuterich, in his first combat situation, who told his Marines to shoot first and ask questions later -- the way that Marines did during the all-out fight in Fallouja in late 2004.

Was it reasonable to use that tactic in Haditha, where families were known to be living? Does a generalized feeling that shots may have been fired from a certain direction constitute the positive identification required under Marine rules to use deadly force? Did the Marines actually hear the racking of AK-47s? Such questions will be central to Wuterich’s court martial.

Neal Puckett, Wuterich’s attorney and a former Marine, says it is illogical to think that Marines in a combat environment should act like a civilian SWAT squad, surrounding a house and using a bullhorn to warn the occupants to come out so they can check for lawbreakers.

Col. John Ewers, a Marine lawyer, counters that Marines “know how to aggressively take people down and to suggest that we can’t do the shades of gray in-between is a cop-out and I think it sells Marines short.”

Bing West, former Marine, former assistant secretary of defense, and premier chronicler of Marines in Iraq, appears to take a midpoint. Entering the first house in a “kinetic” fashion was appropriate, he tells the interviewer, but Marines should have stopped after they realized women and children were being killed and that no insurgents were found.

There you have it: three Marines, three different views. Welcome to the tactical and moral complexities of what happened in Haditha on Nov. 19, 2005.

Since Haditha, the Marines have a standing order that all civilian deaths be investigated. The order reinstitutes a policy that was in place during 2003 and early 2004 but fell by the wayside after the bloody battles in Fallouja in 2004.

Mission objectives

The promise of increased scrutiny is unsettling to troops. “It does make you second-guess yourself,” Sgt. Tim Tardif tells Frontline. “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in Leavenworth (prison). I also want to bring all my boys home safe.”

Gary Myers, whose client, Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt, had charges dropped after a preliminary hearing, says “Haditha will be the case that causes the military to come to grips with the rules of engagement in a way they never have had to before.”

It would be pretty to think so, but the chances appear slim. Even as journalists and historians ponder the meaning of Haditha, both sides have moved on.

Haditha leaders are working with the U.S. on various reconstruction projects, including medical care and a better water and electricity system. Even a tribal sheik whose son was killed by Marines in a different incident is now making common-cause with the U.S.

Asked recently by The Times about the killings, another tribal sheik blamed the insurgents who held the town in a death grip into late August 2006 when the tribes, Iraqi police, and the Marines formed an alliance.

Soon the Marines will move out of Haditha into a plywood camp being built outside the city by Navy Seabees. The school which the Marines used as their headquarters and renamed “Camp Sparta” will be returned to the Iraqis.

Before they leave, the Americans will paint over the walls, including the one containing the name of Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas of El Paso.

tony.perry@latimes.com

Tony Perry is currently on his sixth visit to Iraq, where he reports on Marines.

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‘Frontline: Rules of Engagement’

Where: KCET

When: 9 to 10 tonight

Rating: Not rated


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