Haditha: A new cloud in the fog of war

A proven Iraqi massacre by US Marines would add pressure to remove troops.

At the West Point commencement on May 27, President Bush said that "each loss is heartbreaking."

Mr. Bush was talking about the 34 academy graduates killed in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past four years, and not about the two dozen Iraqi civilians apparently killed in their homes by US Marines last Nov. 19.

The massacre was first reported by Time magazine in March, and, since then, the grisly details have begun to emerge, mainly from survivors. It seems clear now that in Haditha, northeast of Baghdad, a Marine lance corporal was killed by a roadside bomb. And his enraged buddies swept through three nearby houses shooting point-blank at residents, men, women, children, old, young. It didn't seem to matter.

Only when he came home to Hanford, Calif., did Lance Cpl. Roel Briones tell the Los Angeles Times of feeling tormented. He didn't take part in the killings, he said, but he did take pictures of the carnage and he helped to carry bodies out of the homes.

At his joint news conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair last Thursday, Bush listed as America's biggest mistake the Abu Ghraib scandal, in which prisoners were photographed while being tormented. We've been paying for that for a long time, he said. The president didn't mention the Haditha massacre until this Wednesday, saying he was "troubled by the initial news stories." But Haditha has been under investigation for months, and was presumably known to him.

Although on a much smaller scale, Haditha brings back My Lai, 1968, the massacre of hundreds of Vietnamese villagers, which came to symbolize American disregard for innocent human life. In this case, the victims were citizens of a country whose sovereignty the United States has hailed. It is not likely, though, that any marines will be turned over to the Iraqi Justice Ministry for trial.

There will undoubtedly be Congressional hearings. Sen. John Warner, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, says he plans to look into whether the military chain of command acted properly and legally - that is to say, whether there was a coverup. And, undoubtedly, Haditha will add to the pressures for withdrawal from Iraq among Americans, many of whom are already dubious about the assertion that the American mission is liberation.

Daniel Schorr is the senior news analyst at National Public Radio.

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