A Town Awoke to Slaughter

Iraqis say Marines went house to house killing Haditha residents. 'I wish I had died with them,' says a child who saw her family slain.

By Megan K. Stack and Raheem Salman

Los Angeles Times

June 1, 2006

BAGHDAD — The killing began shortly after sunrise on a November day. As a U.S. patrol rolled through Haditha, a homemade bomb exploded beneath the belly of a Humvee, rocking the sleepy riverside town.

"The Americans who were in the first vehicle came back to the damaged car. They started to scream and shout," said a gray-haired shopkeeper who would give his name only as Abu Mukarram. He said he watched the scene unfold from his bedroom window. "After some minutes, everything was quiet. During this quiet, no bullets were shot. They were moments of expectation."

Ten minutes passed in silence. Then Abu Mukarram heard the crack of the first bullets.

Planted by insurgents at the edge of the road, the bomb had killed Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas, a 20-year-old Marine from El Paso. Survivors and witnesses said Terrazas' death drove some of the troops into a murderous rage.

Survivors say that furious Marines rampaged through a quiet street, bursting into homes and gunning down Iraqi civilians — including children, women and an elderly man in a wheelchair. Their account appears to match details emerging from a military investigation of the deaths of at least 24 Iraqi civilians on the morning of Nov. 19.

For some in the United States, the Haditha killings are reminiscent of the torture at Abu Ghraib, both cases involving conduct by troops that suggests a breakdown of morality in a climate of fear and violence. President Bush said Wednesday that he was "troubled" by news reports of the slayings.

"I am mindful that there is a thorough investigation going on. If, in fact, the laws were broken, there will be punishment," Bush said in his first public comments on the incident, made during a photo session with President Paul Kagame of Rwanda.

In Iraq, by contrast, word of the deaths has spread slowly out of Haditha, blurring into the steady background noise of daily horrors. To a public that has endured more than three years of combat, rampant bombings and executions, news of two dozen more lost lives grabbed few headlines.

Sliced in half by the Euphrates and nestled in fruit groves, Haditha is a quiet farming community of 90,000 people in the midst of barren western desert in Al Anbar province. Farmers tend date orchards, and grow oranges and apples in the shadow of the palms.

This account of the Nov. 19 killings comes from witness and survivor interviews conducted by Iraqi reporters for The Times in Baghdad and Haditha. The reporter who traveled to Haditha cannot be named for security reasons.

After the roadside bombing, the Marines arrived first at the door of Abdul Hamid Hassan Ali, 89, an amputee who used a wheelchair. They shot him, then turned their guns on his three sons and their families, survivors said.

Waleed Abdul Hameed, a 48-year-old worker in Al Anbar's religious affairs office, was among the first of the family members to be gunned down. His 9-year-old daughter, Eman, said she was still wearing her pajamas when the Marines arrived. Her 7-year-old brother, Abdul Rahman, said he hid his face with a blanket when his father was shot.

A few minutes later, the boy saw his mother fall to the ground, dying.

"I saw her while she was crying," he said. "She fell down on the floor bleeding." Speaking days ago in Haditha, months after the attacks, the boy broke into tears, covered his eyes with his hands, and began to mutter to himself.

At his side, his elder sister began to speak again. Eman described how the two had waited for help, the bodies of their family members sprawled on the floor.

"We were scared," she said. "I tried to hide under the bed." With shrapnel injuries to her legs, she lay still for two hours.

When the shooting began, Eman's aunt, Hibba Abdullah snatched her 5-month-old niece off the floor. The baby's mother had dropped her in shock after seeing her husband gunned down. Clutching the child, Abdullah ran out of the house. She and the baby, Aasiya, survived.

The baby's mother "completely collapsed when they killed her husband in front of her," Abdullah said. "I ran away carrying Aasiya outside the house, but when the Americans returned they killed Asma, the mother of the child."

Abdullah's 39-year-old husband also slipped out of the house and ran to warn his cousins nearby. But he crossed paths with the Americans on his way back; he died of gunshot wounds to the shoulder and head, Abdullah said.

Seven family members were killed: Ali and his wife; their three sons and a daughter-in-law; and their 5-year-old grandson. Only one of the household's adults survived.

The Marines stopped next at the home of customs official Younis Salim Nusaif, 45, his wife, Aida Yassin, and their six children. The 42-year-old Yassin was in bed that morning, recovering from a recent operation. Her sister had come to stay with the family and help with housework while she recuperated.

Everyone was at home when the troops arrived. And all but one 12-year-old girl were slain. Along with the parents and visiting sister, four girls and a boy, their ages ranging from 4 to 15, were shot by the Marines, said neighbors and the surviving child, Safa Younis Salim.

During a meeting with a reporter, Safa, with a round face and big brown eyes, was withdrawn and reluctant to talk about the attack. Only after her relatives coaxed her did she describe how she played dead. The Americans yelled in the faces of her family members before shooting them, she said, then kicked them and hit the bodies with their guns.

The schoolgirl said she lay on the ground, covered with her sister's blood, and pretended to be dead while her family died around her. Her sister's blood spurted fast; it was like a water tap, she said.

"I feel sorry. I was wishing to be alive," said Safa. "Now I wish I had died with them."

The troops moved along the street to another home. There, they killed four brothers, whose ages ranged from 20 to 38, a woman from the family said. First the Marines herded the women outside, pointed guns at their heads and ordered them to stay still, said the woman, who did not want her name published.

The men were grouped inside. Then the sound of gunfire rang out.

"After some minutes the soldiers ran out and left the house," she said. The women went inside and found the men dead.

"They were shot in different parts of their bodies," the woman said. "Spots of blood covered the place. Blood was coming out."

The last to die apparently came upon the scene by chance. Four university students, two of them brothers, and their taxi driver drove too close to the spot where the families had been killed. Witnesses said U.S. troops stopped their car, ordered them to get out and shot them.

When the killing was over, the Americans continued to guard the street, keeping relatives away, townspeople said. Eventually, the troops took the bodies to the hospital, a medical source in Haditha said.

Since that November day, the people of Haditha have felt haunted. The survivors described sinking into depression.

Much of the talk has centered on the U.S. offer of $2,500 in compensation for each death. Some of the families said they turned the money down.

In March, the townspeople said, U.S. investigators arrived. They brought cameras to record the witnesses' accounts, and toys for the surviving children.

In contrast with the prominence of the Haditha story in the U.S. media, the deaths have received little attention here.

Some Sunni Arabs allege that the Shiite Muslim majority simply isn't very interested in the bloodshed in the mainly Sunni western provinces.

"The local satellite channels are affiliated with militias and Shiite parties," said Omar Jubouri, head of the human rights office for the Iraqi Islamic Party. "That's why they don't show the violations against the Sunnis."

Others point out that Iraqis already have a tarnished view of the U.S. military, that the notion of foreign troops killing innocent civilians simply doesn't deliver much shock.

"It doesn't mean that much to hear that 20 people were killed by the Americans," said Hassan Bazzaz, a political analyst in Baghdad. "Every single day people are killed and thrown in the streets, in the garbage cans. They're scared to death. They don't even have time to think about what happened in Haditha."

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A Times staff writer in Haditha and staff writer Zainab Hussein in Baghdad contributed to this report.