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In Iraq, Haditha case is reminder of justice denied

A U.S. Marine's guilty plea to dereliction of duty closes the books on the slayings of 24 Iraqis. But it also underscores what Iraqis see as American impunity.

January 25, 2012|By Raheem Salman and Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times
  • Omer Chasib lost his father to the 2005 Marine assault in Haditha that claimed the lives of 24 unarmed Iraqi civilians.
Omer Chasib lost his father to the 2005 Marine assault in Haditha that claimed… (Hadi Mizban, Associated…)

Reporting from Baghdad and Beirut — The teacher still keeps family photos of the dead, visual mementos of lives cut short in an unremitting hail of gunfire.

"The Americans killed children who were hiding inside the cupboards or under the beds," said Rafid Abdul Majeed Hadithi, 43, a teacher in the city of Haditha who says he witnessed the 2005 assault by U.S. Marines that took the lives of 24 unarmed Iraqi civilians. "Was this Marine charged with dereliction of duty because he didn't kill more? Is Iraqi blood so cheap?"

In the United States, the brutal saga of Haditha — among the dead were seven children, including a toddler, three women, and a 76-year-old man in a wheelchair — may have concluded Monday with Marine Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich's guilty plea to negligent dereliction of duty. A military judge said Tuesday that Wuterich will serve no time in the brig under the terms of his plea bargain.

Charges were previously dropped against six others involved in the Euphrates Valley incident; a seventh Marine was acquitted. The plea closed the books on a politically charged case that sparked debate about the manner in which U.S. troops react amid the "fog of war" and the tension of combat.

For many Iraqis, however, Haditha remains a visceral reminder of the most troubling aspects of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and subsequent occupation of their homeland.

Along with the Abu Ghraib prison where Iraqi prisoners were abused by U.S. military police, and Baghdad's Nisour Square, where 17 Iraqis were allegedly shot dead in 2007 by employees of American private contractor Blackwater, Haditha stands out as an inglorious icon.

The legacy, exposing an enduring sense of justice denied, likely hastened the withdrawal of U.S. troops after more than eight years here. Iraq's new leaders, who owe their status in large part to the American-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein, ultimately opted to reject an immunity deal for any remaining American forces. The White House then ordered the pullout.

Overall reaction in Iraq to Wuterich's plea appeared somewhat muted Tuesday, reflecting, Iraqis say, an already deeply rooted skepticism about the U.S. justice system. Iraqis are also distracted by a political crisis that some fear could result in renewed sectarian warfare: At least 10 people were killed Tuesday in bombings in Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood, a Shiite Muslim stronghold.

Still, this week's legal denouement has stirred bitter memories for some and arouses anew a sense of outrage over what many Iraqis view as U.S. impunity.

"This is the wrong message," said Yaseen Mehdi, an engineer and human rights activist. "We are not looking for financial compensation. We are looking for ethical compensation."

Others have lamented what they saw as a lack of contrition.

"With such crimes, the man who is responsible at least has to apologize to the families of the martyrs," said Ashwaq Jaff, a member of the Iraqi parliament's human rights committee. She has no doubt that cases such as Haditha, reinforcing the perception that U.S. forces went unpunished in the death or abuse of Iraqis, helped sully America's image.

"There was a very negative reaction as a result of these incidents," said Jaff, a Kurd, one Iraqi ethnic group that did largely welcome the U.S. invasion. "This made the Iraqi street refuse their [continued] presence in Iraq."

On Tuesday, Wuterich said he accepts responsibility for the deaths. "Words cannot express my sorrow for the loss of your loved ones," he said in an apology to the families of the 24 Iraqis killed. "I know there is nothing I can say to ease your pain."

Many see a stark contradiction between the legal outcome of the Haditha affair and Washington's publicly professed concern for human rights, especially as the Arab world experiences continued political upheaval and justice is a rallying cry from Damascus to Tunis.

"America needs to reform the ethical side of its judicial establishments and enlighten the world with that," said Mehdi, the Baghdad-based activist.

Word of the Haditha plea and other cases of perceived American callousness in war zones may heighten mistrust of the U.S. presence in other war-torn countries such as Afghanistan, human rights advocates say.

Some U.S. observers have assailed what they called a flawed prosecution, but others see the killings mainly as a case study of what can go wrong when fighting a shadowy enemy in a "morally bruising environment," as one Marine officer put it.

Even after the killings, Marines say they earned the respect of Haditha officials and sheiks. That is so, Marines say, because they risked their lives daily to clear the area of insurgents who regularly targeted and executed civilians.

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