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Videotape Forces Pentagon to Investigate Claims U.S. Marines Shot Dead 15 Iraqi Civilians in Apparent Revenge Killings

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The U.S. military is conducting a criminal investigation into allegations that marines shot and killed 15 civilians, including seven women and three children, in the Iraqi town of Haditha last November in an apparent act of revenge for the death of a U.S. soldier by a roadside bomb. A videotape obtained by Time Magazine shows that many of the victims were still in their nightclothes when they died. We speak with the Time reporter who broke the story. [includes rush transcript]

The U.S. military is conducting a criminal investigation into allegations that marines shot and killed 15 civilians, including seven women and three children, four months ago in Iraq.

The killings occurred early on the morning of November 19th, after a roadside bomb struck a Humvee carrying US troops in the western Iraqi town of Haditha. The bomb killed one marine and injured two others.

The next day, the Marines said in a statement that 15 Iraqi civilians died in the initial blast. They said that after the explosion, gunmen attacked the US convoy with small arms fire, prompting the Marines to return fire, killing eight insurgents.

But relatives, survivors and doctors who saw the bodies say that is not true. They say the 15 men, women and children were killed when marines burst into their houses after the blast and shot them dead in their nightclothes.

Human rights activists say that if the accusations prove to be true, the incident would rank as the worst case of deliberate killing of Iraqi civilians by US service members since the war began.

Soon after the incident, the mayor of Haditha led an angry delegation up to a nearby Marine camp to seek redress. Their protests were ignored and the US military stood by its original contention, that the civilians were killed by a roadside bomb. The story would have ended there had it not been taken up by Time magazine.

Time obtained a videotape shot in Haditha by an Iraqi journalism student one day after the incident. The tape shows that many of the victims, especially the women and children, were still in their nightclothes when they died. The scenes from inside the houses show that the walls and ceilings are pockmarked with shrapnel, bullet holes and blood.

In January, Time presented a copy of the video along with witness testimony to US military command in Baghdad. A preliminary military investigation was launched. It established that the men, women and children were indeed killed by the marines, though it described the deaths as “collateral damage.” Now the case has been referred for criminal investigation by the Navy to establish whether the 12 marines involved were guilty of misconduct.

We are joined by one the reporters for Time magazine who broke the story. Aparisim Ghosh is the chief international correspondent for Time magazine. He has spent the last three and half years in Iraq. He joins us in our firehouse studio.

We called the Pentagon and invited them on the program. Pentagon spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Barry Venable declined to join us saying it would be “inappropriate” to comment while an investigation is underway.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We are joined right now by one of the reporters for Time magazine who broke this story. Aparisim Ghosh is the chief international correspondent for Time magazine. He spent the last three-and-a-half years in Iraq and joins us today in our Firehouse studio. We called the Pentagon and invited them on the program, but the Pentagon’s spokesperson Lt. Col. Barry Venable declined to join us, saying it would be “inappropriate to comment while an investigation is underway.” Aparisim Ghosh, we thank you for joining us.


AMY GOODMAN: Tell us the story. Your story in Time is called “One Morning in Haditha.”

APARISIM GHOSH: Haditha is a small town northwest of Baghdad, a very, very dangerous place. It’s in the heart of what’s known as the Sunni Triangle, and Marines and soldiers who operate in that area are under constant threat. On the morning of the 19th of November, a four-Humvee patrol going through town was hit by an I.E.D., an improvised explosive device, which sheered off the front of one of the Humvees, killed one of the soldiers inside. What happens next is a matter of some debate, as you pointed out. Initially the Marines claimed that a total of 23 people were killed on the spot, 15 of them innocent civilians, all of whom the Marines said were killed by the I.E.D., and eight of them, enemy combatants who were shot by the Marines.

AMY GOODMAN: In addition to the 15?

APARISIM GHOSH: In addition to the 15. We looked into this case, and the more we dug, the more we thought that something didn’t quite add up. And when we finally got our hands on this videotape, it became very clear to us that these people could not have been killed outdoors by an explosive device. They were killed in their homes in their night clothes. The night clothes are significant, because Iraqi women and children, especially, are very, very unlikely to go outdoors wearing their night clothes. It is a very conservative society.

When we first approached the Marines with this evidence, they responded in quite a hostile fashion. They accused us of buying into enemy propaganda. That aroused our suspicions even further, because it seemed to be excessively hostile on their part. And we dug even more. We spoke to witnesses. We spoke to survivors of this incident. And then we became quite convinced that these people were killed by the Marines. What is left to be seen is whether they were killed in the course of the Marine operation as collateral damage or by accident, or whether the Marines went on a rampage after one of their own had been killed and killed these people in revenge.

AMY GOODMAN: You are very graphic in the piece, “One Morning in Haditha.” Describe what the survivors say happened when the U.S. military went into the nearby houses around where the roadside bomb had exploded.

APARISIM GHOSH: Well, the survivors claimed — let me back up a little bit. The Marines claim that they received small arms fire from nearby homes and that they responded to this fire, they shot back, and then they went into the homes to try and flush out the bad guys, the terrorists who were in there. It’s clear from the video that those homes don’t have any bullet marks outside, which would suggest that there was very little, if any, shooting by the Marines at the facades of these homes. But there are lots of signs of bullets inside.

The victims told us that the Marines came in and they killed everybody inside. In one house they threw a grenade into a kitchen. That set off a propane tank and nearly destroyed the kitchen and killed several people in that home. The scenes that were described by the survivors and the witnesses were incredibly bloody and very graphic. But they are, unfortunately, very commonplace in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: Inside, you talked to — you have the description of a nine-year-old girl.


AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about her and her family and what she says happened.

APARISIM GHOSH: Well, she was indoors with her family when the explosion took place. The explosion was loud enough to wake everybody up in the neighborhood.

AMY GOODMAN: The bomb that killed the Marine.

APARISIM GHOSH: The first explosion, yes. And she says when she heard gunshots — of course, she’s a child, she was frightened. When the Marines stormed towards their home, her grandfather slipped into the next room, as is, apparently, was his custom to pray, to reach out for the family Koran and pray to God that this crisis would pass. On this occasion, the Marines came into the home. They entered the room where the grandfather was, and other members of the family, and killed him.

AMY GOODMAN: And she was left alive.

APARISIM GHOSH: She survived, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And her little brother.

APARISIM GHOSH: And her brother was injured by a piece of — either by a bullet or a piece of shrapnel, we’re not sure.

AMY GOODMAN: But her parents, her mother, her father, her grandparents —

APARISIM GHOSH: Her parents, her grandparents, I believe her uncle, were also killed.

AMY GOODMAN: And then, another house.

APARISIM GHOSH: Four houses in all, involving a total of — indoors, total of 19 people, and four people outside.

AMY GOODMAN: And what, once you had more details like this, did the military respond, outside of saying that you were just buying the enemy propaganda?

APARISIM GHOSH: Well, once we had all these details and we were not getting any way with the Marines, we took the videotape and the evidence that we had to the senior-most military public affairs officer in Baghdad and showed him what we had. He then took that evidence and passed it on to his superior officers, recommending that they conduct a full and thorough inquiry. That inquiry is a two-step process. The first step has been completed.

AMY GOODMAN: And then, this Haditha journalism student, who is this student?

APARISIM GHOSH: We’d rather not say, for his own protection, but he’s a young local man. It’s not uncommon in Iraq for young people to have video cameras and cameras, and there’s so much going on in their lives that they have plenty to shoot.

AMY GOODMAN: And you got a hold of this, or Hammurabi Human Rights got a hold of this.

APARISIM GHOSH: He brought the tape to Hammurabi Human Rights, which is a local human rights group, and they brought it to us once they found out that we were inquiring about this.

AMY GOODMAN: There have been many allegations from Iraqis that similar behavior by U.S. troops has caused numerous civilian deaths during the occupation, especially during the offensive in Fallujah and elsewhere. Just this week it was reported that Iraqi police have accused U.S. soldiers of executing 11 Iraqi civilians, including four children and a six-month-old baby, in a raid last Wednesday near the city of Balad.


AMY GOODMAN: Were you in Baghdad at the time that this started to come out?

APARISIM GHOSH: I was in Baghdad, and I saw the reports when they came out. We were unable to get to Balad. It’s very unsafe there, and we were unable to get there to confirm the story. But as you point out, this kind of story is very commonplace. At our bureau in Baghdad, we receive complaints like this all the time. They are very hard to verify. This was a very rare instance where we were able to speak to witnesses, where there was videotape available. In most cases, none of these materials are available to us. And let’s face it. It’s very difficult in a situation like that to establish the truth.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, now, Aparisim Ghosh, in February, after you presented the videotape to the military, you write that an infantry colonel went to Haditha for a weeklong probe, in which he interviewed Marine survivors and doctors at the morgue. The probe concluded civilians were, in fact, killed by Marines, not by an insurgent bomb, and that no insurgents appeared to be in the first two houses raided by the Marines. The probe found, however, that the deaths were the result of collateral damage rather than malicious intent by Marines.

APARISIM GHOSH: Yes. The first inquiry was meant to look into the facts, what exactly happened. And it concluded that the soldiers shot back at what they perceived to be as enemy fighters from these homes and then entered the homes, and these people were killed in the process. The second inquiry, which is about to get underway and is being conducted by the NCIS, is to look into the motivation —


APARISIM GHOSH: Sorry, the Naval Criminal Investigation Service, so this is a criminal investigation. Their job will be to establish the motives of the Marines, to find out whether the Marines acted properly and within the rules of engagement, whether their actions were motivated by a genuine threat or a genuine perception of a threat, or whether they were reacting to one of their own being killed.

AMY GOODMAN: You interviewed the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Khalilzad?

APARISIM GHOSH: That’s right, I did, but not on this subject.

AMY GOODMAN: What did you talk to him about?

APARISIM GHOSH: Well, I talked to him about what the U.S. was able to do in this political crisis that’s in Iraq. There is a complete stalemate. The different political groups have each painted themselves into a different corner of the room. They seem unable to get together and form the unity government that is what the United States most desperately wants. And we talked to him about his efforts in that connection, and we talked to him about what leverage he was able to bring to bear with these leaders.

AMY GOODMAN: I just wanted to end by asking on the resolution of this story, which, as you say, is not isolated, although this is a very — you have a great deal of detail on Haditha. You weren’t able to go to Haditha?

APARISIM GHOSH: No, we were not.


APARISIM GHOSH: Because it’s in the heart of the Sunni Triangle. The only way we could get there would be to embed with the Marines themselves, and that didn’t feel right to us. If we were investigating them, it seemed to be a bad idea to be traveling with them and under their protection.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, you spoke to the children, the survivors, when they —

APARISIM GHOSH: We were able to get — yes. We were able to get the witnesses to come to us in Baghdad. The human rights group came to us in Baghdad. And, of course, we saw the videotape, which was from the scene. And we heard from other local people like the mayor and local — and the doctor and other functionaries.

AMY GOODMAN: You say the U.S. has paid relatives of the victims $2,500 for each of the 15 dead civilians, plus smaller payments for the injured?

APARISIM GHOSH: Yes. That is commonplace in cases of innocents being killed in combat.

AMY GOODMAN: You end, in a very touching way, the piece that you wrote along with your colleague who is — who has just left Baghdad also.


AMY GOODMAN: Tim McGirk. “Nothing can bring back all that was taken from 9-year-old Eman Waleed on that fateful day last November. She still does not comprehend how, when her father went in to pray with the Koran for the family’s safety, his prayers were not answered, as they had been so many times in the past. 'He always prayed before, and the Americans left us alone,' she says. Leaving, she grabs a handful of candy. ’It’s for my little brother,’ she says.” Her brother, very terrorized, very traumatized.

APARISIM GHOSH: As are thousands of young people in Iraq today, but this family, in particular. She’s now an orphan. There is an extended family that will look after her, but she will never — any hope of a normal life for her now over.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we will certainly continue to follow this case. Based on your being in Iraq for a number of years now, what do you think will happen? Do you think this is different because of the videotape?

APARISIM GHOSH: Yes. I think the military is taking it seriously now, finally. And I think the NCIS report will probably take a few weeks to come through. If the Marines are found guilty of wrongdoing, I hope that the military makes an example of them, as they did with those found guilty with Abu Ghraib. It is important for the Iraqis to know that, unlike the terrorists who will very happily kill innocents and then boast about it, that when it happens with American soldiers, that the people are held responsible and punished for it.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Aparisim Ghosh.


AMY GOODMAN: He wrote the piece with Tim McGirk, “One Morning in Haditha: U.S. Marines killed 15 Iraqi civilians in their homes last November. Was it self-defense, an accident or cold-blooded revenge?” The piece appears in this week’s Time magazine. Thank you.

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