Even the reporter who wrote the story didn’t want to believe it. Could U.S. troops in central Iraq really have handcuffed and executed an extended family, including four women and five small children?
Matthew Schofield of McClatchy Newspapers wrote the story about those allegations more than five years ago, based on reports from Iraqi authorities and a medical examiner in the town of Ishaqi, an incident American forces allegedly tried to cover up with a subsequent airstrike.
From March 2006 until today, Schofield had not been able to put the story out of mind. And now, despite repeated denials by U.S. military officials of any misdeed, a diplomatic cable newly released by WikiLeaks corroborates the newsman’s concerns.
“We need a thorough investigation of this,” Schofield said. “It’s been too long. We need to know what happened in Ishaqi.”
It’s far from certain we will get a definitive answer. Back then, the war in Iraq had spiraled into its most violent period. The media scrambled to keep up with daily violence. Reporters had enough on their hands trying to account for an attack several months earlier, in which U.S. Marines retaliated for a roadside bombing in Haditha by killing two dozen Iraqis, including women and children.
Today, much of the American public and media have moved on. The deadliest American war is now in Afghanistan. Economic anguish and the odd hurricane fill the headlines. Ten years after the 9/11 attacks, we would all prefer to recall the heroic moments in the war on terror — such as the cops and firefighters giving up their own lives to rescue fellow New Yorkers and the overwhelming majority of troops who have fought honorably for their country.
The painful and often lonely job of the journalist is to remind us — even on the eve of a cathartic and unifying 10th anniversary — not just about the things that have gone right but the things that have gone wrong as we cope with a violent and determined enemy. The reemergence of the Ishaqi story also reminds us that, for all the tumult and potential danger caused by release of unredacted cables, WikiLeaks has also furthered the understanding of how our representatives conduct themselves overseas.
Reporters like Schofield are not immune to the mixed emotions that come with unearthing particularly grim news. When word about Ishaqi first cropped up, Iraq had for a couple of months already been in the grip of a particularly violent wave of bombings, shootings and murder. The paroxysm of killing between Shiites and Sunnis began with the bombing of the Golden Dome Mosque.
The bloodshed came with such persistence that even the most committed reporters in Baghdad felt challenged to explain it to readers back home. So Schofield, who had been based in Berlin between frequent forays to the war zone, decided to pick one day “to dig down deeper into some of these incidents.”
The day he chose happened to be March 15, 2006. U.S. forces engaged the house in Ishaqi, about 55 miles north of Baghdad, that day because it was occupied by a suspected member of Al Qaeda in Iraq, military spokesmen said. A ferocious gun battle ensued, leaving the home in rubble. The Americans said that somehow in the chaotic scene they managed to nab their suspect.
Iraqi police commanders described a markedly different scenario, one that ended with five children younger than 5, including a 5-month-old infant, dead. The words of the local authorities rang with particular power, because they had been working closely before that with U.S. forces.
The Iraqi version got fairly wide coverage from American outlets but no persistent investigation. U.S. military officials pledged to take another look and eventually announced that their opinion had not changed. There had been no wrongdoing.
The case might have faded quietly into the past, like much of the destruction in Iraq over the last eight years. But that changed in late August, when the public information guerrillas of WikiLeaks dumped 134,000 more once-private government communiques onto the Internet.
At McClatchy’s bureau in Washington, a cable from U.N. investigator Philip Alston had special resonance. The reporters passed the cable on to Schofield.
In the document, written a dozen days after the shootout, Alston requests more information from U.S. authorities about the Ishaqi episode. From his investigation, which is not described in detail, Alston concluded that, at the end of the shootout, the “troops entered the house, handcuffed all the residents and executed all of them.”
When Schofield followed up for this week’s story, the U.N. official told him that he had been frustrated in 2006 when he tried to get more information from American and Iraqi officials. Alston, now a law professor at NYU, said the U.N. Human Rights Council did not have the power or will to respond when requests were ignored.
Schofield’s reporting has been corroborated and a big story revived. But there is no joy in it for the journalist. He felt sickened back then at the thought that young Americans could have visited such horror on women and small children. He stayed up late into the night after writing the story to talk through the story with colleagues, they still recall.
Schofield now writes a column and edits opinion pieces for McClatchy’s Kansas City Star. But he keeps photos taken that March morning in Ishaqi in his computer. One that he can’t get out of his mind shows tiny bodies wrapped in blankets.
The journalist tries to fit all that he has learned about Ishaqi into a less troubling scenario.
“I can’t get my head around the idea of U.S. soldiers standing behind these boys and pulling the trigger,” he said. “Maybe with everyone huddled in one room, there was shooting and everyone was dead by the time they knew what happened. Maybe,” he paused. “Who knows? I would like very much to know what happened.”
The U.S. government should open its files from Ishaqi. Clarifying what happened that March day would meet a couple of American imperatives: protecting the homeland, and maintaining our most basic values, even in a time of war. Among many others, that would be a fitting 9/11 anniversary tribute.