- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 25, 2012

HADITHA, Iraq — In this town which saw 24 unarmed civilians die in a U.S. raid seven years ago, residents expressed disbelief and sadness that the Marine sergeant who told his troops to “shoot first, ask questions later” reached a deal with prosecutors to avoid jail time.

They were outraged both at the American military justice system and at the refusal of Iraq’s Shiite-led government to condemn the killings and at least try to bring those responsible to face trial in this country.

“We are deeply disappointed by this unfair deal,” said Khalid Salman Rasif, an Anbar provincial council member from Haditha. “The U.S. soldier will receive a punishment that is suitable for a traffic violation.”

Haditha, a town of about 85,000 people along the Euphrates River valley some 140 miles (220 kilometers) northwest of Baghdad, is overwhelmingly made up of Sunni Muslims. Sunnis lost influence in this country with the fall of Saddam Hussein and feel increasingly squeezed out of their already limited political role.

“We blame Iraqi officials because they did not take any actions to make the criminals stand trial,” said Naji Fahmi, 45-year-old government employee who was shot in the stomach during what became known as the Haditha massacre.

Iraq’s Deputy Justice Minister Busho Ibrahim told the Associated Press on the phone that “we have nothing to do with this issue.” Ali al-Moussawi, a spokesman for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said “such issue needs to be studied carefully before giving any statement.”

Sunnis officials and Haditha residents alike said no further study was required.

“This deal is another crime committed against the victims and their families,” said Youssef Ayid, who lost four brothers in the Haditha raid. “We are sad to see the criminals escape justice,” Ayid said.

The raid took place on Nov. 19, 2005, at a time when Sunni insurgents and al-Qaida militants roamed Haditha’s streets, terrorizing the population and battling U.S. forces.

Three months earlier in the same town, six Marines were massacred and their bodies mutilated when insurgents overran their observation post. Two days later, 14 Marines and an interpreter were killed when their vehicle hit a land mine.

The allegations against the Marines were first brought forward in March 2006 when Time magazine reported that it obtained a video of the attack’s aftermath, taken by a Haditha journalism student inside the houses and local morgue.

The footage showed a blood-smeared bedroom floor. Bits of what appeared to be human flesh and bullet holes could be clearly seen on the walls. Other scenes showed bodies of women and children in plastic bags on the floor of what appeared to be a morgue.

A week before images were broadcast, the U.S. military in Iraq said it was investigating potential misconduct by the troops. A military statement issued just days after the Haditha raid had described the incident as an ambush on a joint U.S.-Iraqi patrol in the town that left 15 civilians, eight insurgents and a U.S. Marine dead in the bombing and a subsequent firefight.

The town’s residents claimed at the time that the only shooting done after the bombing was by U.S. forces.

The subsequent revelations further tainted America’s reputation among Iraqis when it was already at a low point after the release of photos of prisoner abuse by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison.

Story Continues →