HADITHA, IRAQ — More than a year after two dozen civilians were killed here in what prosecutors call an appalling case of wanton murder by four Marines, a new batch of troops is trying to win the hearts and minds of the public.
But as they patrol the narrow, winding streets and try to protect themselves from a deadly, unseen enemy, the November 2005 incident hangs like dust in the air.
"I think about it because I want to give them the right image about Americans," said Lance Cpl. Bryan Bates, 21, of Tucson, who has picked up a working knowledge of Arabic. "I know some of them feel scared because of what happened. I try to be more friendly."
Complicating the situation is the fact that many residents don't even consider the case, which involves the most serious charges levied against Marines in Iraq, the worst transgression by U.S. forces in Haditha since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
On two occasions, Marines assigned to build trust and goodwill in Haditha were moved to the larger city of Fallouja to participate in major offensives against Sunni Arab insurgents. While the Marines were gone, insurgents flooded into Haditha, massacring police officers and other townspeople who had cooperated with the Americans.
The dozens of deaths have resulted in suspicion and hostility and made the Marine mission here exceedingly difficult and dangerous.
"The betrayal [by the U.S.] of the tribes and the local leadership
When Echo Company arrived in September, the Marines found themselves under constant attack. The company was averaging a casualty a day in its first 45 days.
"I looked at the numbers and said, 'None of us are going to survive at this rate,' " Tracy said. "I realized we had to fight a different way."
The new methods include berms around the city, controlled access points and a car registration program. If people are caught driving without registration, their keys and car batteries are confiscated.
Officers remind Haditha-bound troops to follow the rules of engagement and the laws of war, both of which call for protection of civilians. A general also lectures them on not being slow to protect themselves against an enemy that is well-armed and known to hide among women and children.
Navy corpsman Patrick Horgan, 36, of Aurora, Colo., said the 2005 case had made troops more cautious.
"Everybody knows to be smart about it and make sure you can take a shot safely," he said. "What happened here has definitely increased awareness about the rules, which I think is important."
But there is also a feeling that only troops who have patrolled the streets of Haditha can understand the pressures the Marines experienced in 2005.
"They were set up for an ambush, it wasn't a massacre," said Cpl. Paul Brodner, 20, of San Diego. "No Marine would do anything like that except if he were fighting for his life."
An Iraqi interpreter working for the Marines, who was with the troops in 2005, says he hopes more information about the slayings will come out during court-martials.
"The Marines were attacked and they responded," said the interpreter, who asked that he be identified only as John. "They made mistakes, but they did what you do when you're ambushed."
Lt. Col. Jim Donnellan said it was only natural that Marines now on patrol think about those members of the Camp Pendleton-based 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, who face criminal charges.
"When a Marine reads about Marines of the same age, and operating in the same city, accused of such heinous things, he can't help but have that in the back of his mind," Donnellan said.
Officers also accused
Courts-martial, which could be held this summer, will also determine the fate of four Marine officers accused of failing to thoroughly investigate the slayings. Military lawyers were in Haditha last month questioning witnesses.
Prosecutors allege that the Marines went on a rampage after one comrade was killed and two were wounded by a roadside bomb. Defense attorneys say the troops were following regulations that allow for throwing fragmentation grenades into a room where armed insurgents are thought to be hiding.
In the months after the invasion of Iraq, the Marines had been making headway in Haditha, a community of about 50,000 along the Euphrates River where many of the male residents worked on the railroad, the hydroelectric dam and the phosphate and concrete plants, which are largely shut down now. Officials and police teamed up with the Americans to provide intelligence about the insurgency.
In April 2004, the Marines were ordered to attack Fallouja after a mob killed four American private security contractors. The men's bodies were burned and two were hung from a bridge.
After the Marines left Haditha, insurgents killed several local officials, rounded up a dozen police officers and killed them before a crowd at a soccer field. They also kidnapped a group of police recruits and beheaded nine of them.