HADITHA, Iraq - Khadija Hassan still shrouds her body in black, nearly three years after the deaths of her four sons. They were killed on Nov. 19, 2005, along with 20 other people in the deadliest documented case of U.S. troops killing civilians since the Vietnam War.
Eight Marines were charged in the case, but in the intervening years, criminal charges have been dismissed against six. A seventh Marine was acquitted. The residents of Haditha, after being told they could depend on U.S. justice, feel betrayed.
"We put our hopes in the law and in the courts and one after another they are found innocent," said Yousef Aid Ahmed, the lone surviving brother in the family. "This is an organized crime."
No one disputes that Marines killed 24 men, women and children in this town in four separate shootings that morning. Relatives said the attack was a massacre of innocent civilians that followed a roadside bomb that killed one Marine and injured two. Marines say they came under fire following the bomb.
Nonetheless, military prosecutors filed charges that ranged from murder to covering up a crime. Three Marines were relieved of their duties then, and U.S. Rep. John Murtha, a former Marine, famously called the incident "murder" on television.
One by one, the cases fell apart. American and Iraqi witnesses provided conflicting accounts. The investigation began months after the incident, and many Iraqis who could have testified were unable to travel to the United States. Furthermore, several Marines were granted immunity.
Last week, a judge dismissed charges of dereliction of duty and failure to investigate filed against the highest ranking officer implicated, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani. The Marine Corps plans to appeal.
The dismissals have deepened the victims' relatives' grief. Many say they feel deceived after having collaborated with U.S. investigators who came into their homes, collected evidence, took testimony, and ultimately failed to hold the Marines accountable.
"Right now I feel hatred that will not fade," said Ahmed. "It grows every day." Charges against two Marines who allegedly killed his brothers were dropped in August 2007.
All charges of murder in this case were dropped and at least seven Marines were given immunity to allow them to testify against Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, the squad leader. His charges now include voluntary manslaughter of at least nine people.
Wuterich has always maintained that he made the right decision, believing his Marines were under threat.
While other Marines' accounts have differed from his, Wuterich told the CBS News program 60 Minutes last year that he shot at five unarmed men outside a white car because he believed they were a threat when they started to move away from the car. At the first home they raided, where women and children were inside, he said he told his men to "shoot first and ask questions later", because he believed the Marines were coming under "sporadic" fire from the dwelling.
Wuterich said that he didn't consider killing 24 people a massacre and that he did what he did to protect his Marines from what he perceived to be a threat.
"I remember there may have been women in there, may have been children in there," he told 60 Minutes. "My responsibility as a squad leader is to make sure that none of the rest of my guys died ... and at that point we were still on the assault, so no, I don't believe [I should have stopped the attack]."
This is how the residents of Haditha recall that day: U.S. Marines were apparently bent on revenge after a roadside bomb killed one of their own. They killed four unarmed men and an unarmed taxi driver. Then they threw grenades and entered two homes. In the Younes' household, they killed eight people, including two toddlers, a 5-year-old and a mother recovering from an appendectomy.
In an adjacent home, they killed seven people, including a 4-year-old and two women, according to death certificates and one of the children who survived. Across the street, residents of two houses shared by a family were pulled out. The men were separated from the women as the Marines asked them about weapons.
Family members said they had one AK-47 in each house, which Iraqi law allows. The Marines forced the women and children into one house at gunpoint, then took four brothers to a back bedroom and executed them, the family said.
Yousef Aid Ahmed was not at home when the killing occurred. He is now the sole breadwinner for his mother and extended family.
His father became ill after the shootings, and later, the family said, went blind from grief. Ailing, he lingered in a small bedroom where his sons were killed. One was gunned down to the left of the bed, a second to the right. The third man's body wound up inside a closet and the fourth was propped against the wardrobe. Despite a fresh coat of paint, the ceiling still bears grey spots where the men's blood spattered. They were all shot in the head.
The relatives seldom go into this room.
The Marines told a different story. Lt. Col. Paul J. Ware, an investigating officer with the Navy Marine Corps Trial Judiciary gave this account: Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt, a Marine who acknowledged killing three of the brothers, told investigators that the four brothers were holed up in a back bedroom where the Marines later found two AK-47s. Ware wrote in the report that the evidence made the Iraqi's story implausible and their accounts were inconsistent.
The report didn't say whether there was any evidence that the AK-47s were fired. The report also implied that the family may have made up their story for the $10,000 in compensation for the deaths of civilians and that their credibility should be questioned because they were women and a teenager.
"Witness accounts are not credible," the report said about the case of one Marine accused of killing three of the brothers. "Although $10,000 does not appear to be a large amount of money...such a sum of money was equal to 4 times the average annual salary of a typical resident of Haditha. Prior to making these claims, no payments were made to the Ahmed family."
Relatives said they accepted the money after authorities told them it would help the case. Now they wish they'd never taken the cash.
"Right now I feel hatred that will not fade," said Yousef Aid Ahmed. "It grows every day."
"I have no brothers and sisters," Khaled Jamal said. "Now I have no father and my uncles are gone. Put yourself in my shoes." Once a stellar student, Khaled is now failing.
The sense of betrayal has made family members reluctant to keep telling the story.
At the house where Safa Younes now lives with her uncle, her uncle refused to allow her to talk about that day.
Safa, now age 14, is the sole survivor of the Younes family household. She passed out in fear when the shootings began and awoke under the dead bodies of her family members, she and her uncle Yaseen recounted to McClatchy in a 2006 interview four months after the slaying.
She heard the moaning of her brother Mohammed and tried to get him to stand up to go to her uncle's home. Bleeding profusely, he couldn't move. She cradled him in her arms until he died. Then, covered in her brother's blood, she ran to her uncle's home, her uncle and Safa recounted to McClatchy in 2006.
This week he refused to allow Safa to speak of the tragedy again.
"It's enough. We spoke to many journalists and human rights groups," Safa's uncle said. "It brought us nothing. I lost her whole family; I don't want to lose her too."
Iman Waleed lost everyone in her family save her little brother. The 12-year-old tells the story quickly and matter-of-factly now. She's told it at least 20 times to journalists, investigators and human rights groups.
"The Americans came in and they entered through the kitchen door. My father was in the room reading the Quran and they shot him," she says in a monotone voice, her green eyes looking at the floor.
Then, she continued, they threw a bomb and killed her grandfather, and then they killed her grandmother. Her uncles were next, she said. The first died instantly and the second was shot more than once. Finally the Marines came to the living room where Iman cowered with her mother and two young brothers. They shot her mother and her three-year-old brother that was cradled in her arms. She and her brother Abdul Rahman, nine at the time, were wounded but survived.
Her brother still does not speak of that day. According to Iman, he's afraid to talk about it. He plays with his cousin of the same age in the house where they live with an uncle and pretends that it never happened.
For Iman it is the memory of the family that she lost that is hardest to talk about. Everything is "normal," now she says. Her life continues.
"I miss every one of them," she said. "I wish I could forget it ... I think about it less now."
The legal rationales behind the dismissal of many charges against the Marines don't matter to the Iraqi families. They told the world there was a massacre, they said, and still no one listened.
"What should we do?" Abdul Razak said. "They are all found innocent. What more do they need?...They shouldn't have been found innocent."
She dropped her head.
"I'm one of a million ... I am nobody." she said. "Why did they choose us from everyone? Why did they separate us and kill us. ... Why did they come and kill our young men and leave us alive?"
Charges Against Marines Related To The Haditha Investigation
Lt. Col. Jeffrey R. Chessani
Violation of a lawful order and willful dereliction of duty were both dismissed on June 17, 2008. The Marine Corps plans to appeal the recent decision.
Sgt. Sanick P. Dela Cruz
The charges of unpremeditated murder for five people and making a false official statement were dismissed April 2, 2007. He was granted immunity after the charges were dropped.
1st Lt. Andrew A. Grayson
Grayson was found not guilty of all charges after being accused of obstructing justice in the Haditha case on June 3, 2008. On Dec. 27, 2007 the charge of dereliction for failing to investigate a suspected violation of the law of war was dismissed
Capt. Lucas M. McConnell
The charge of unpremeditated murder in the killings of three brothers and dereliction for failing to "ensure" a "thorough investigation was initiated," were dismissed on Sept. 12, 2007. He was granted immunity and ordered to cooperate with "all parties" looking into the 24 killings in Haditha.
Capt. Randy W. Stone
Charges that include failing to ensure an investigation and accurately report a suspected violation of the law of war were dismissed.
Lance Corporal Stephen B. Tatum
Charges of Involuntary manslaughter of two people, unpremeditated murder of two others, negligent homicide of four people, aggravated assault and reckless endangerment were dismissed on March 28, 2008. Tatum was given testimonial immunity in the Haditha case.
Staff Sgt. Frank D Wuterich
Charges against Wuterich for unpremeditated murder of 17 people were dismissed on Dec. 27, 2007 and another was withdrawn on Aug. 29, 2007. Now he is charged with voluntary manslaughter for killing or ordering the killing of at least nine people. He is also charged with reckless endangerment, aggravated assault, obstructing justice and dereliction. The charges were referred to the general court-martial on Dec. 31, 2007. He has yet to go to trial.
Source: Iraq Investigations
© 2008 McClatchy Newspapers