SAN FRANCISCO - Human rights groups reacted with skepticism Thursday after military prosecutors charged eight Marines in the November 2005 killings of 24 Iraqi civilians in the western Iraqi town of Haditha.
The squad leader, Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich, was among four Marines charged with murder. The other four soldiers charged were not believed to be present during the killings but were accused of failures in investigating and reporting the deaths.
"In these [U.S. military] courts, there is no voice for the victims," said Dr. Salam Ishmael. The Baghdad-based head of Doctors for Iraq was in Haditha last November when American soldiers allegedly went house-to-house killing two dozen civilians, including a 66-year-old woman and a 4-year-old boy.
"Not one of the victims' families is represented," he added. "No lawyer from the victims' families is represented. So you can see the basic idea of justice and fairness is actually not available."
Dr. Salam Ismael says many Iraqis would like to see the American soldiers brought to trial in Iraqi courts--a position shared by the country's elected prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has demanded an end to the immunity U.S. soldiers currently enjoy under Iraqi law.
"Why are you afraid of being ruled by the law of the country that you're supposedly trying to liberate?" he asked rhetorically. "That's the question--it's a simple question I would like to ask the American people."
International human rights groups have a different concern. They note that since the September 11th attacks five years ago, no officer above the rank of major has been charged in connection with torture or the abuse of detainees in U.S. custody.
In the Haditha case, the highest-ranking officer charged is a lieutenant colonel, who faces the relatively minor charge of dereliction of duty.
"Why isn't he being charged as a principal in the murder that the enlisted personnel are being charged for?" asked Human Rights Watch's John Sifton.
"The issue here is preventing future abuse from occurring and the best way to do that isn't to go after low-level enlisted personnel," Sifton said. "It's by sending a message to the officer corps that they need to prevent [abuses] and that's not going to happen if you just give officers a slap on the wrist."
Dr. Salam Ismael says the military needs to investigate more than the specific events that occurred in Haditha. He points to the current situation in the western Iraqi city of Ramadi, where locals have asked the U.S. military to move their posts outside the city limits.
"There are three check points and nobody can go around them. It makes lots of people more miserable," he said. "Fighting is continuous. For about two weeks there were attacks near the hospital in the city itself and many of our doctors said they could not get their patients--many of them women and children--out of the city."
The Pentagon did commission a separate investigation into how the military command structure allowed the Haditha massacre to occur and go unpunished until it was revealed by a Time Magazine article months later.
The details of that investigation, headed by Army Maj. Gen. Eldon Bargewell, remain secret. But Bargewell told reporters earlier this year that while there appeared to be no cover up, senior Marine commanders failed to investigate when confronted with conflicting information.
According to journalist and foreign policy analyst Rahul Mahajan, "the entire ambiance in al-Anbar province was and still is such that this kind of atrocity was quite likely to happen--and when it did happen it could easily be ignored."
"Those kinds of things can't happen at low levels of the military," he said. "You're talking about large numbers of troops and so you're talking about command level staff."
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