Contradictions Cloud Inquiry Into 24 Iraqi Deaths

By JOHN M. BRODER

New York Times

June 17, 2006

This article was reported by John M. Broder, David S. Cloud, John Kifner, Carolyn Marshall, Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker, and was written by Mr. Broder.

What really happened in Haditha on Nov. 19, 2005?

On that day, marines killed 24 Iraqi civilians, including 10 women and children and an elderly man in a wheelchair. But how and why it happened and who ultimately bears responsibility are matters of profound dispute.

Interviews with marines who were present that day or their lawyers, Iraqi residents who witnessed the attack and military investigators provide broadly conflicting accounts of the killings. This article, based on those interviews, does not resolve those discrepancies. But it does lay bare the task facing investigators as they try to square the accounts with ambiguous forensic evidence, and suggests that the work will be hindered by the passage of time, the tricks of memory and the fog of fast-paced action at several different locations in Haditha, a tense Euphrates River valley city, seven months ago.

Investigators and townspeople have said that marines overreacted to a fatal roadside bombing and shot the civilians, only one of whom was armed, in cold blood.

Marines and their lawyers, who are only now beginning to speak out after months of harsh portrayals of their actions, contend that they believed they were under a concerted attack, and entitled under their rules of engagement to use lethal force against those who they believed were responsible for a roadside bomb that killed a marine.

The 24 Iraqis killed included 5 men in a taxi and 19 other civilians in several houses, where, marines have contended, their use of grenades and blind fire was permitted under their combat guidelines when they believed their lives were threatened.

However, investigators have found evidence that the men in the taxi were not fleeing the bombing scene, as the marines have told military officials. Investigators have also concluded that most of the victims in three houses died from well-aimed rifle shots, not shrapnel or random fire, according to military officials familiar with the initial findings.

The houses where the killings took place show no evidence of the violent room-clearing assault described by the marines and their lawyers, the officials said.

The bodies have not yet been exhumed for autopsies, and defense lawyers can be expected to challenge the narrow use of photographic evidence on these points. But according to two people briefed on the investigation, one member of the Marine squad at Haditha, himself closely tied to some of the deaths, is now cooperating with investigators.

The Army general investigating allegations of a cover-up has submitted his report to Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the No. 2 American commander in Iraq, the military announced yesterday, but its conclusions have not been made public.

There is little dispute over how the events that led to the deaths of the civilians began. A 13-man squad of the 3rd Platoon of Company K, known as Kilo Company, set off before dawn on Nov. 19 from its Haditha headquarters, Fire Base Sparta, to help replace some Iraqi Army troops at a combat outpost about three miles to the south. The squad, in four Humvees, was returning to Sparta heading west along a route the members called Chestnut Road.

A Bomb in the Road

About two miles from their base, an improvised explosive device, or I.E.D., buried in the road exploded under the fourth vehicle, instantly killing Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas, 20, of El Paso. Two other marines, Lance Cpl. James Crossan and Lance Cpl. Salvador Guzman, were seriously injured.

What happened immediately after the bomb hit, and over the next four to five hours as the squad dispersed and called in reinforcements, remains in dispute. Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich, the leader of the squad, told his lawyer, Neal A. Puckett, that he had quickly set up a defensive perimeter around the convoy and called in the casualty report. He said he had seen a white car, now usually referred to as a taxi, containing a driver and four young men. The marines suspected that those men were spotters for the bomb.

Several marines approached the car, shouting commands in broken Arabic. According to Sergeant Wuterich's account, the men jumped out of the car and disobeyed orders to stop. The marines shot and killed them.

But residents watching the episode from nearby homes have told contradictory stories.

Some described the men as students on their way to a technical college in Baghdad, and said they had been shot while still sitting in the car. Others said they had been pulled from the car, ordered to lie on the ground and then executed.

According to Mr. Puckett, Sergeant Wuterich and his men believed their rules of engagement permitted them to shoot men of military age running away from the site of an improvised explosive device.

Two people briefed on the investigation said Thursday that evidence gathered on the shooting of the taxi passengers now appeared to be the most at odds with the account given by marines through their lawyers.

One Defense Department official said photographs indicated that the positions of those corpses and the pooling of their blood can be viewed as sharply inconsistent with the marines' version that the Iraqi men were shot as they fled.

"We may not know for sure what happened, but it doesn't look like there was any running involved," said the official, who would only discuss the inquiry on the condition of anonymity because the matter remains under investigation.

A second person who has been briefed on the inquiry said that "there was no question" that the taxi shooting "is the most problematic" and that Navy investigators were focusing on the actions of one particular marine in the squad, although no charges had been filed.

The marines have said they believed they were coming under small-arms fire from a house on the south side of the road. A four-man "stack" of marines, led by Sergeant Wuterich, who up to that point had no combat experience but was the senior enlisted man on the scene, broke into the house.

They found no one in the first room, but heard noises behind a door. A marine with experience in the deadly house-to-house fighting in Falluja a year earlier rolled in a grenade and another marine fired blind "clearing rounds" into the room, Mr. Puckett, Sergeant Wuterich's lawyer, said.

The technique is known as "clearing by fire," said a marine who was with a nearby squad that day but who asked not to be identified because his role in the events is under investigation. "You stick the weapon around and spray the room," he said. "It's called prepping the room."

He added: "You've got to do whatever it takes to get home. If it takes clearing by fire where there's civilians, that's it."

Many of the marines in Kilo Company had served on their previous deployment in Falluja, which had largely been cleared of civilians before they entered, and where permissive rules of engagement were in force. But Haditha was a different combat environment, with insurgents intermingled with civilians. In training between the two deployments, marines were taught how to protect civilians, and were instructed on more restrictive combat rules.

Months of Violence

Haditha, deep in Sunni-dominated Anbar Province, had taken a heavy toll in marines that spring and summer. In August, six scout-snipers from an Ohio reserve battalion were ambushed and killed on patrol.

Two days later, 14 more were killed when their amphibious track ran over antitank mines stacked three high. Four others were killed early in a fierce firefight inside a hospital, where insurgents hid behind patients.

"Saying who's a civilian or a 'muj' in Iraq, you really can't," the marine said. "That's how wishy-washy it was. This town did not want us there at all." Mr. Puckett, the lawyer, said that the marines in Haditha believed that they were operating within established rules when they cleared the house.

When the smoke cleared, however, the marines found seven civilians dead, including two women and a 4-year-old boy. Two young children survived the attack by hiding under a bed, the children told reporters later. Another child and an woman escaped.

The marines saw a back door open, Mr. Puckett said, and believed themselves to be in "hot pursuit" of an insurgent gunman. They burst into a second house, using assault rifles and grenades to clear a room, killing eight civilians, including two women and five children ages 3 to 14.

This account, however, does not square with the survivors' recollections and the conclusions of the military's preliminary investigation led by Col. Gregory Watt of the Army.

For several reasons, Colonel Watt does not believe the marines' version is accurate, according to a military official who has been briefed on the investigation but who would not discuss it on the record because it was not yet complete.

Colonel Watt has interviewed more than two dozen people, including all the marines in the First Squad, their reinforcements and Iraqi civilians in Haditha, including the morgue director.

Some marines told Colonel Watt they were let into the houses they entered; others said they conducted forced entries, the military official said. Colonel Watt was also troubled by the fact that marines did not change their tactics after discovering that they had killed unarmed civilians in the first house, the official said. A dozen more civilians were killed after the first encounter.

The wounds of the dead Iraqis, as seen in photographs and viewed by the morgue director, were not consistent with attacks by fragmentation grenades and indiscriminate rifle fire, Colonel Watt found. The civilian survivors said the victims were shot at close range, some while trying to protect their children or praying for their lives. The death certificates Colonel Watt examined were chillingly succinct: well-aimed shots to the head and chest.

Inconsistent Evidence

In addition, if the marines had violently cleared the houses using automatic weapons and fragmentation grenades, there would be lots of damage and bullet marks in the walls. Early investigators said they found no such evidence, although the walls may have been patched before they arrived.

As this was going on, a Marine quick-reaction force was trying to make its way to the bomb site. So was another unit, a nine-man squad led by Sgt. Francis Wolf, a young but experienced combat veteran, and joined by Capt. Lucas McConnell, according to a corporal who was with the group.

Members of this squad gave differing accounts of their actions. One said that they quickly came under fire. "All we knew was, there's a big firefight," one marine in this group told his lawyer, Paul L. Hackett, a major in the Marine Reserves and an unsuccessful Democratic candidate for Congress from Ohio in a special election last fall. "You just heard it everywhere, medium, heavy machine gun fire."

The marine represented by Mr. Hackett added: "This whole section of the city is a kill zone. We're getting shot every time we turn around."

But a corporal from this same group, who had been badly wounded in Falluja but was able to return for a second deployment, said there was intermittent small-arms fire that did not appear to him to be directed at his patrol. The other marine may have been hearing the First Squad's action about 700 yards up the road at the bombing site and thought they were under fire, he suggested.

After clearing the second house, Sergeant Wuterich realized there had been a significant number of civilian deaths, and reported to the platoon's operations center that there had been "collateral damage" from the operations, according to his lawyer. He estimated the dead as 12 to 15 Iraqis. Investigators are looking into whether and how a junior officer, who was monitoring the action from a nearby observation post, passed along the report of civilian casualties.

Before the episode ended, marines killed four more men in a third house, one of whom was armed with an AK-47, according to Mr. Puckett's account. Another squad shot a 45-year-old man who they said appeared to be carrying a weapon, but who actually was using a cane. Groups of marines came to the scene throughout the day to evacuate the wounded and bundle up the dead.

Regrets and Cautions

When they found civilians had been killed, a marine said, Sergeant Wuterich "was pretty torn up about it. He was pretty remorseful." Captain McConnell, the same marine said, refused a request later that day to have a tank fire on a house considered threatening, saying: "There could be women and children. We've had enough women and children die today."

The next day, the Marines issued a press release stating that 15 Iraqi civilians had been killed in a bombing in Haditha and that marines had killed 8 insurgents after they opened fire on Kilo Company. That statement has not been corrected or retracted.

About a dozen enlisted marines, including Sergeant Wuterich and Sergeant Wolf, who engaged in or witnessed the shootings are under investigation for possible charges ranging from dereliction of duty to murder. A number of their superiors, up to the division level, are also under scrutiny for failing to report the events accurately and respond appropriately.

Two mid-level officers, including Captain McConnell, have already been relieved, for reasons not yet made public.

Gary Myers, a lawyer who has been retained by a marine under investigation in the Haditha shooting, said he had been told by his client that the marines were operating within existing regulations. Mr. Myers suggested that responsibility should be placed on the commanders who approved those rules of engagement, and not on the soldiers on the ground at Haditha. "I don't want to see these marines isolated and vilified," he said.

John M. Broder reported from Los Angeles and Camp Pendleton, Calif., for this article; David S. Cloud, Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker from Washington; John Kifner from Cincinnati; and Carolyn Marshall from Camp Pendleton.