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Junkyard Gives Up Secret Accounts of Massacre in Iraq
Andrea Bruce for The New York Times
Transcripts of military interviews from the investigation into the Haditha massacre were found at this trailer in a junkyard in Baghdad, which specializes in selling trailers and office supplies left over from American military base closings.
By MICHAEL S. SCHMIDT
Published: December 14, 2011
BAGHDAD — One by one, the Marines sat down, swore to tell the truth and began to give secret interviews discussing one of the most horrific episodes of America’s time in Iraq: the 2005 massacre by Marines of Iraqi civilians in the town of Haditha.
“I mean, whether it’s a result of our action or other action, you know, discovering 20 bodies, throats slit, 20 bodies, you know, beheaded, 20 bodies here, 20 bodies there,” Col. Thomas Cariker, a commander in Anbar Province at the time, told investigators as he described the chaos of Iraq. At times, he said, deaths were caused by “grenade attacks on a checkpoint and, you know, collateral with civilians.”
The 400 pages of interrogations, once closely guarded as secrets of war, were supposed to have been destroyed as the last American troops prepare to leave Iraq. Instead, they were discovered along with reams of other classified documents, including military maps showing helicopter routes and radar capabilities, by a reporter for The New York Times at a junkyard outside Baghdad. An attendant was burning them as fuel to cook a dinner of smoked carp.
The documents — many marked secret — form part of the military’s internal investigation, and confirm much of what happened at Haditha, a Euphrates River town where Marines killed 24 Iraqis, including a 76-year-old man in a wheelchair, women and children, some just toddlers.
Haditha became a defining moment of the war, helping cement an enduring Iraqi distrust of the United States and a resentment that not one Marine has been convicted.
But the accounts are just as striking for what they reveal about the extraordinary strains on the soldiers who were assigned here, their frustrations and their frequently painful encounters with a population they did not understand. In their own words, the report documents the dehumanizing nature of this war, where Marines came to view 20 dead civilians as not “remarkable,” but as routine.
Iraqi civilians were being killed all the time. Maj. Gen. Steve Johnson, the commander of American forces in Anbar, in his own testimony, described it as “a cost of doing business.”
The stress of combat left some soldiers paralyzed, the testimony shows. Troops, traumatized by the rising violence and feeling constantly under siege, grew increasingly twitchy, killing more and more civilians in accidental encounters. Others became so desensitized and inured to the killing that they fired on Iraqi civilians deliberately while their fellow soldiers snapped pictures, and were court-martialed. The bodies piled up at a time when the war had gone horribly wrong.
Charges were dropped against six of the accused Marines in the Haditha episode, one was acquitted and the last remaining case against one Marine is scheduled to go to trial next year.
That sense of American impunity ultimately poisoned any chance for American forces to remain in Iraq, because the Iraqis would not let them stay without being subject to Iraqi laws and courts, a condition the White House could not accept.
Told about the documents that had been found, Col. Barry Johnson, a spokesman for the United States military in Iraq, said that many of the documents remained classified and should have been destroyed. “Despite the way in which they were improperly discarded and came into your possession, we are not at liberty to discuss classified information,” he said.
He added: “We take any breach of classified information as an extremely serious matter. In this case, the documents are being reviewed to determine whether an investigation is warranted.” The military said it did not know from which investigation the documents had come, but the papers appear to be from an inquiry by Maj. Gen. Eldon Bargewell into the events in Haditha. The documents ultimately led to a report that concluded that the Marine Corps’s chain of command engaged in “willful negligence” in failing to investigate the episode and that Marine commanders were far too willing to tolerate civilian casualties. That report, however, did not include the transcripts.
Many of those testifying at bases in Iraq or the United States were clearly under scrutiny for not investigating an atrocity and may have tried to shape their statements to dispel any notion that they had sought to cover up the events. But the accounts also show the consternation of the Marines as they struggled to control an unfamiliar land and its people in what amounted to a constant state of siege from fighters who were nearly indistinguishable from noncombatants.
Some, feeling they were under attack constantly, decided to use force first and ask questions later. If Marines took fire from a building, they would often level it. Drivers who approached checkpoints without stopping were assumed to be suicide bombers.
“When a car doesn’t stop, it crosses the trigger line, Marines engage and, yes, sir, there are people inside the car that are killed that have nothing to do with it,” Sgt. Maj. Edward T. Sax, the battalion’s senior noncommissioned officer, testified.
He added, “I had Marines shoot children in cars and deal with the Marines individually one on one about it because they have a hard time dealing with that.”
Sergeant Major Sax said he would ask the Marines responsible if ....