Robert Dreyfuss is the author of Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam (Henry Holt/Metropolitan Books, 2005). Dreyfuss is a freelance writer based in Alexandria, Va., who specializes in politics and national security issues. He is a contributing editor at The Nation, a contributing writer at Mother Jones, a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, and a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone. He can be reached through his website: www.robertdreyfuss.com.
The murderous rampage by U.S. Marines in Haditha last November is likely to be remembered a century from now as the emblem of America’s criminal war in Iraq. Its repercussions are only just beginning to be felt at home, as the stunning reality of an hours-long outburst of cold-blooded killing by U.S. troops starts to penetrate the American psyche. But in Iraq, the anger is already building. The mayor of Haditha, a village astride the Euphrates River, calls what happened “a day of human catastrophe” for his city, accusing the United States of “war crimes.”
The hand-picked Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, plans an inquiry. “We will ask for answers not only about Haditha but about any operation ... in which killing happened by mistake and we will hold those who did it responsible,” said Maliki. He suggested that U.S. actions not only in Haditha but in other cases would be investigated by the Iraqi authorities—including the notorious attacks last March when U.S. and Kurdish forces raided a Shiite mosque in Baghdad. Indeed, the nightmare for the Pentagon is “two, three, many Hadithas.”
And, as I found out, unexpectedly, Haditha has a special meaning for the man assigned to represent Iraq in Washington.
Yesterday, at a forum on Iraq arranged by the U.S. Institute for Peace, I asked Samir al-Sumaidaie, Iraq’s ambassador to the United States, about Haditha. In answering, he stepped out of his objective, diplomatic cadence—because Haditha, for Sumaidaie, is personal. “What happened in Haditha is a huge tragedy, for Haditha and for the United States,” he began. “I am from Haditha. I know the people, I know the neighborhood. One of my cousins in Haditha was killed by the Marines in Haditha not long before this.” Quiet and well-spoken, Sunni but not sectarian, Sumaidaie seemed ready to hold the Marines accountable not only for the November, 2005, atrocity but for the killing of his cousin and for other deaths in the town.
“The people of Haditha are squeezed between two huge threats,” he said. On the one hand, they face religious-extremist terrorists, “and on the other hand, there are the Marines, fighting them, shooting, going around killing people.” When he was asked if the revelations about the events of November would make him reevaluate what happened to his cousin, he answered in a steely voice. “I already know what happened to my cousin,” he said. “It might help others to reevaluate what happened.”
Though tens of thousands, at least, lie dead in Iraq as the result of the 2003 U.S. invasion, though dozens more are butchered every day in Iraq’s sectarian civil war and by U.S. forces determined to enforce President George W. Bush’s will in that war-torn country, sometimes it takes the flesh and blood of real people to help make sense of the grim statistics. With Haditha, it is grim indeed.
Lance Cpl. Roel Ryan Briones, the first of the Marines who took part in the massacre to speak out, told the Los Angeles Times: “They ranged from little babies to adult males and females. I'll never be able to get that out of my head. I can still smell the blood.” Added his mother: “He called me many times about carrying this little girl in his hands and her brains splattering on his boots. He'd say, ‘Mom, I can't clean my boots. I can't clean my boots. I see her.’” From The Washington Post account of the atrocity, there is this:
The Marines moved to the house next door. … Inside were 43-year-old Khafif, 41-year-old Aeda Yasin Ahmed, an 8-year-old son, five young daughters and a 1-year-old girl staying with the family, according to death certificates and neighbors. The Marines shot them at close range and hurled grenades into the kitchen and bathroom, survivors and neighbors said later. Khafif's pleas could be heard across the neighborhood. Four of the girls died screaming.
As unspeakable as the Marines crimes in Haditha are, it’s safe to say that Haditha is not an isolated case. Indeed, were it not for Time, we might never have learned about the massacre. Yesterday I went back and read the coverage of Haditha in the U.S. media last November, and it is chillingly barren, a mere recitation of the U.S. military’s lying official version. From The New York Times, of November 21, 2005:
The Marine Corps said Sunday that 15 Iraqi civilians and a Marine were killed Saturday when a roadside bomb exploded in Haditha, 140 miles northwest of Baghdad. The bombing on Saturday in Haditha, on the Euphrates in the Sunni-dominated province of Anbar, was aimed at a convoy of American Marines and Iraqi Army soldiers, said Capt. Jeffrey S. Pool, a Marine spokesman. After the explosion, gunmen opened fire on the convoy. At least eight insurgents were killed in the firefight, the captain said.
After Time broke the Haditha story a few weeks ago, I went back in my blog, The Dreyfuss Report, to take a look at what I’d written about another reported massacre that drifted in and out of the news not long ago. Michael Georgy of Reuters, visiting the scene of another alleged atrocity in the town of Ishaqi, north of Baghdad, interviewed several witnesses and filed this report about the aftermath of another U.S. attack:
"We heard a barrage of shooting for 20 minutes and then we heard bombs," said Thiya Hussein, who said his cousin was killed. "After the Americans left we went to the house and found 11 people lying in blood together in one room. Five of them were children. They were bound in plastic handcuffs and shot."
"The baby, Husam, who was six-months-old, was shot dead. A 75-year-old woman was shot in the head," he told Reuters. Another neighbor, Abbas Abid, said: "The house was damaged and the family was shot and lying in one room.
And from MSNBC, yesterday:
Two Iraqi women were shot to death north of Baghdad after coalition forces fired on a vehicle that failed to stop at an observation post, the U.S. military said Wednesday. Iraqi police and relatives said one of the women was about to give birth.
So far, there have been a series of disturbing reports that the Haditha massacre has failed to anger Iraqis. Appearing on Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now on Tuesday, the bureau chief for Knight-Ridder in Baghdad, Nancy Youssef was asked about the reaction in Iraq, and she replied:
Surprisingly quiet. I think there is a feeling here that there are a lot of people being killed every day in this country, whether it be by U.S. forces or by militias or by gangs. And it hasn't sort of gained a sort of energy or anger that you're hearing in the U.S. On the contrary, it's been quite quiet. The Parliament met the day before yesterday and did not even mention this case.
Other reports, in The Washington Post and elsewhere, suggest that Iraqis are too stunned by the continuing violence, occupation and civil war to react to the specific story from Haditha. But I disagree. My hunch is that Iraqis will respond with bitter anger over the story of Haditha, and that it will kick the last remaining props out from under those Iraqi politicians who continue, however half-heartedly, to support the continued presence of the American occupation. I also find it remarkable that Iraq’s ambassador in Washington would speak so personally about a story that, as it unfolds, could devastate whatever remains of the moral case for the United States staying in Iraq.
I asked Ambassador Sumaidaie about how he learned of the atrocity, and whether the Iraqi government knew about it before the report in Time. “Yes, we did. I knew it myself soon afterward,” he said. Sumaidaie learned of the events in Haditha from friends and family, by telephone, but he refused to believe it. “It sounded incredible,” he added. “But frankly, without concrete evidence, I did not raise it.” Haditha, he said, is controlled by the Iraqi resistance, and in November there were effectively no Iraqi police, no army and no government in the town. “But,” he said, “I found it hard to believe that a group of highly trained Marines would go into peoples’ homes and shoot women and children.”
He believes it now. And his comments provide striking testimony about the utter invisibility of the government of Iraq in large parts of the country, where power is exercised by U.S. forces and by the paramilitary, sectarian armies and militias.
Permit, if you will, a devilish comparison. Saddam Hussein, at present, is on trial for his role in the alleged murder of dozens of residents of a small Iraqi city. In the wake of an attempted assassination of Saddam by members of the (now ruling) Dawa party of Iraq, Iraqi forces under Saddam’s command reportedly murdered men and young boys. In Haditha, in the wake of a roadside bomb that killed a Marine, other Marines—under the command of George W. Bush—reportedly murdered dozens, including children and babies. Perhaps, when the Saddam trial is over, Ramsey Clark will have a new client?