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The Shame Of Kilo Company - murder and coverup of 24 Iraqi civilians deaths
May 28, 2006

Sparked by a TIME report published in March, a U.S. military investigation is probing the killing of as many as 24 Iraqi civilians by a group of Marines in the town of Haditha last November. Several Marines may face criminal charges, including murder. And new revelations suggest that their superiors may have helped in a cover-up

The outfit known as Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, wasn't new to Iraq last year when it moved into Haditha, a Euphrates River farming town about 150 miles northwest of Baghdad. Several members of the unit were on their second tour of Iraq; one was on his third. The men in Kilo Company were veterans of ferocious house-to-house fighting in Fallujah. Their combat experience seemed to prepare them for the ordeal of serving in an insurgent stronghold like Haditha, the kind of place where the enemy attacks U.S. troops from the cover of mosques, schools and homes and uses civilians as shields, complicating Marine engagement rules to shoot only when threatened. In Haditha, says a Marine who has been there twice, "you can't tell a bad guy until he shoots you."

But one morning last November, some members of Kilo Company apparently didn't attempt to distinguish between enemies and innocents. Instead, they seem to have gone on the worst rampage by U.S. service members in the Iraq war, killing as many as 24 civilians in cold blood. The details of what happened in Haditha were first disclosed in March by TIME's Tim McGirk and Aparisim Ghosh, and their reporting prompted the military to launch an inquiry into the civilian deaths. The darkest suspicions about the killings were confirmed last week, when members of Congress who were briefed on the two ongoing military investigations disclosed that at least some members of a Marine unit may soon be charged in connection with the deaths of the Iraqis--and that the charges may include murder, which carries the death penalty. "This was a small number of Marines who fired directly on civilians and killed them," said Representative John Kline, a Minnesota Republican and former Marine who was briefed two weeks ago by Marine Corps officials. "This is going to be an ugly story."

With the U.S. struggling to hold on to public support for the war and no end to the insurgency in sight, the prospect of possible indictments has induced an aching dread among military and government officials. As the military launched another probe--into the April 26 killing of an Iraqi civilian by Marines--General Michael Hagee, commandant of the Marine Corps, headed to Iraq to address Marines on the growing crisis. Marine Corps public-affairs director Brigadier General Mary Ann Krusa-Dossin says the allegations "have caused serious concern at the highest levels" of the corps.

A military source in Iraq told TIME that investigators have obtained two sets of photos from Haditha. The first is after-action photos taken by the military as part of the routine procedure that follows any such event. Submitted in the official report on the fighting, the photos do not show any bodies. Investigators have also discovered a second, more damning set of photos, taken by Marines of the Kilo Company immediately after the shootings. The source says it isn't clear if these photos were held back from the after-action report or were personal snapshots taken by the Marines. The source says a Marine e-mailed at least one photo to a friend in the U.S.

Almost as damaging as the alleged massacre may be evidence that the unit's members and their superiors conspired to cover it up. "There's no doubt that the Marines allegedly involved in doing this--they lied about it," says Kline. "They certainly tried to cover it up." Three Marine officers, including the company commander and battalion commander, have been relieved of duty in part for actions related to the deaths in Haditha. A lawmaker who has been briefed on the matter says the investigations may implicate other senior officers.

In hindsight, it seems remarkable that the Marines were able to conceal such a horrific event for so long. It began, as so many things in Iraq do, with an explosion. At about 7:15 in the morning on Nov. 19, a string of four humvees were on routine patrol in a residential area when a white taxicab approached from the opposite end of the street. The Marines made hand and arm signals for the taxi to stop. But as the taxi halted near the first humvee, a bomb under the fourth humvee exploded, killing its driver--Lance Corporal Miguel (T.J.) Terrazas, 20, of El Paso, Texas--wounding two of his comrades and shattering windows 150 yards away. Marines said the convoy almost immediately began to take fire from several houses on either side of the road. Locals dispute that, claiming the only firing after the explosion was done by the Marines. Suspecting that the four students in the taxi either triggered the bomb or were acting as spotters, the Marines ordered the men and the driver, who by then had exited the taxi, to lie on the ground. Instead, they ran, and the Marines shot and killed them.

The military's initial report stated that Terrazas and 15 civilians were killed in a roadside blast and that shortly afterward, the Marines came under attack and returned fire, killing eight insurgents. But as TIME reported in March on the basis of interviews with 28 individuals, including military officials, the families of the victims, human-rights investigators and local doctors, much of that account is dubious. Members of Congress, as well as military sources, have confirmed the critical details of TIME's initial report--that after gunning down the five fleeing the taxi, a few members of Kilo Company moved through four homes along nearby streets, killing 19 men, women and children. The Marines contend they took small-arms fire from at least one house, but as TIME's story detailed in March, only one of the 19 victims was found with a weapon.

The day after the killings, an Iraqi journalism student videotaped the scene at a local morgue and the homes where the shootings had occurred. "You could tell they were enraged," the student, Taher Thabet, said last week. "They not only killed people, they smashed furniture, tore down wall hangings, and when they took prisoners, they treated them very roughly. This was not a precise military operation." A delegation of angry village elders complained to senior Marines in Haditha about the killings but were rebuffed with the excuse that the raid had been a mistake. TIME learned about the Haditha action in January, when it obtained a copy of Thabet's videotape from an Iraqi human-rights group. But a Marine spokesman brushed off any inquiries. "To be honest," Marine Captain Jeff Pool e-mailed McGirk, "I cannot believe you're buying any of this. This falls into the same category of AQI (al-Qaeda in Iraq) propaganda." In late January, TIME gave a copy of the videotape to Colonel Barry Johnson, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad. After reviewing it, he recommended a formal investigation. The ensuing probe, conducted by a colonel, concluded that Marines, not a bomb, killed the civilians but that the deaths were the result of "collateral damage," not deliberate homicide. Nevertheless, after reviewing the initial probe, senior military officials launched a criminal investigation.

A military source in Iraq says the men of Kilo Company stuck by their story throughout the initial inquiry, but what they told the first military investigator raised suspicions. One of the most glaring discrepancies involved the shooting of the four students and the taxi driver. "They had no weapons, they didn't show hostile intent, so why shoot them?" the military source says. Khaled Raseef, a spokesman for the victims' relatives, says U.S. military investigators visited the alleged massacre sites 15 times and "asked detailed questions, examined each bullet hole and burn mark and took all sorts of measurements. In the end, they brought all the survivors to the homes and did a mock-up of the Marines' movements." As the detectives found contradictions in the Marines' account, "the official story fell apart and people started rolling on each other," says the military source.

Military sources told TIME that the first probe is focusing on the unit's leader, who was at the scene of virtually every shooting that day in Haditha. Pentagon officials say the sergeant has served more than seven years in the corps and was on his first Iraq tour. At least two other enlisted men may be directly involved, Pentagon officials say, and perhaps as many as nine others in the 13-man unit witnessed the shootings but neither attempted to step in nor reported them later.

Among the mysteries still unsolved is what caused such a catastrophic collapse in the Marines' discipline. U.S. troops are trained to make the deliberate distinction between friend and foe and are aware that the enemy has completely mixed into the civilian population. Marine Sergeant Eddie Wright, who lost both hands in a rocket-propelled-grenade attack in Fallujah two years ago, said it's natural "to want to kill the guys who killed your buddy." But, he adds, "you don't lash out at innocent people."

So why did some men in Kilo Company apparently snap? Perhaps because of the stress of fighting a violent and unpopular war--or because their commanders failed them. Military psychiatrists who have studied what makes a soldier's moral compass go haywire in battle look first for a weak chain of command. That was a factor in the March 1968 My Lai massacre in Vietnam, when U.S. soldiers, including members of an Army platoon led by Lieut. William Calley, killed some 500 Vietnamese. Says a retired Army Green Beret colonel who fought in Vietnam: "Somebody has failed to say, 'No, that's not right.'" No one, apparently, was delivering that message last November in Haditha.

For more exclusive coverage of the killings in Haditha, including reaction from local residents, visit time.com [This article contains a complex diagram. Please see a hardcopy or pdf.] THE SCENE At 7:15 a.m. on Nov. 19, 2005, Marine Lance Corporal Miguel (T.J.) Terrazas, 20, was killed when a bomb exploded under his humvee on a road just south of Haditha. Within hours, Marines killed two dozen Iraqi civilians, including women and children


To central Haditha

Movement of Marines

Hay al-Sinnai Road

1 Bomb explodes 2 Taxi Four teens and driver killed

3 Waleed house Seven killed, including two women and a child

4 Younis house Eight killed, including six women

5 Ayed house (son) Group of women and children guarded

6 Ayed house (father) Four men killed in adjoining house TIME Graphic by Jackson Dykman and Joe Lertola; satellite image from Digital Globe via Google Earth

For more exclusive coverage of the killings in Haditha, including reaction from local residents, visit time.com
With reporting by DOUGLAS WALLER, Aparisim Ghosh/Baghdad, SALLY B. DONNELLY, Massimo Calabresi, MICHAEL WEISSKOPF/WASHINGTON, Tim McGirk/Jerusalem

Original Text