- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 22, 2006

Two incidents — the deaths of 24 Iraqis at Haditha on Nov. 19 and the deaths of seven Palestinian civilians on a Gaza beach on June 9 — illustrate the difficulties inherent in minimizing civilian casualties while fighting enemies who routinely use civilians as human shields. And the two cases should also serve as important cautionary notes to politicians and journalists about rushing to judge good soldiers guilty of misconduct before the facts are in.

When it comes to Haditha, certain facts are not in dispute: The town, located in Sunni-dominated Anbar province, a haven for foreign jihadists and a hotbed of support for Saddam Hussein, had become very dangerous for American troops. During one 48-hour period in August, the New York Times noted, 20 U.S. soldiers were killed in Haditha — six while out on patrol and 14 more when their amphibious vehicle ran over antitank mines. Four other American soldiers died in a firefight inside a hospital, where terrorists hid behind patients. With that history in mind, a 13-man Marine squadron left its base in Haditha shortly before dawn on Nov. 19. Two miles from their base, an improvised explosive device went off under one of the vehicles, killing one Marine and seriously injuring two others.

After that, virtually every other fact about what took place at Haditha that day is open to question. Haditha residents claim Marines lined people up against the wall and executed them.

Sen. John Murtha, a Marine veteran and a fervent opponent of the Iraq war, is not waiting for the conclusion of the investigation to accuse the Marines of killing civilians in “cold blood” at Haditha. But Neal Puckett, an attorney representing Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich — a veteran Marine who led the Kilo Company squad that mounted four major combat operations in Haditha on Nov. 19 that resulted in 23 deaths — makes a powerful case that the Marines followed proper procedures in searching for the insurgents responsible for the earlier attack. In an interview with this newspaper, he described in some detail how the Marines decided to raid three houses in which they believed jihadists were hiding and to stop a car with five Iraqi men inside who attempted to flee. “My client did nothing contrary to his training on that day,” Mr. Puckett said. “Some [of those killed] were innocent. Others, you will never know whether they were innocent civilians or not.”

In the Gaza case, Israeli fire aimed at preventing rocket attacks was blamed for the deaths of seven Palestinians. But the Israeli military’s own investigation showed that the ordnance could not have come from the 76-mm shells fired from Israeli boats or the 155-mm guns used by artillery forces.

This would hardly be the first time that Israel has falsely been accused of atrocities. In 2002, early reports suggested that Israeli forces had massacred hundreds or even thousands of Palestinians during a large-scale military operation in the Jenin refugee camp. In truth, 52 Palestinians (including 22 civilians) were killed during vicious fighting in which 23 Israeli soldiers also died. In 2000, Israel was blamed for the killing of a Palestinian boy, during fighting in Gaza. James Fallows, writing in the Atlantic Monthly, investigated and showed that Israeli fire could not have killed the boy. Mr. Fallows’ exhaustive investigation, however, has not prevented two former National Security Council officials who served during the Clinton administration (Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon) from citing the boy’s death as evidence that Washington should pressure Israel in order to curry favor with the Arab world.

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