The first glimpse of hope in a nearly two-year nightmare came this week for some of the US Marines being held in a California brig on charges that they murdered Iraqi civilians in Haditha in 2005.
A senior military judge has issued a preliminary ruling that the charges lack substantiation, are inconsistent with observable forensic documentation, and should be dropped.
The incident occurred on November 19, 2005 when Lance Corporal Justin Sharratt and other members of the squad he was assigned to entered a house in Haditha and encountered four Iraqis who were armed with AK-47 rifles pointed directly at Sharratt. The lance corporal emptied his pistol into three of the Iraqis and his squad leader finished off the fourth.
The shootings came at the end of several hours of fighting in the area, which started when a roadside bomb was detonated by terrorists, killing one Marine. Subsequent firefights had erupted throughout the town as the Marines sought to flush out additional terrorists who were hiding among the civilian population.
Things had quieted down somewhat and Sharratt and members of his squad were ordered to man an observation post and keep an eye out for resurgent activity. It was then that they saw the four men peering at them over a wall in a nearby courtyard. They ordered the men to leave, which they did after a warning round was fired, but then they came back.
The Marines were concerned that the men were a terrorist advance party scouting out areas for new attacks. Members of the squad entered what they thought was one house, only to find that it was actually two houses with a small courtyard between them.
Several women and children were evacuated to one of the houses where one Marine was assigned to keep watch on them while the others entered the second house. Here Sharratt encountered the four men and a firefight ensued. An important facet of this issue is that Sharratt used his pistol in the firefight. He was the only squad member armed with a pistol, while the others had M-16 rifles.
Several months later a terrorist propagandist filed a report with an outlet for the American Terrorist Media falsely claiming that the Marines had actually ushered the terrorists out in the street and executed them at point blank range. The ATM immediately ran with the terrorist propaganda, reporting it as factual, and the Marines were branded as murderers without so much as a minute's worth of investigation.
But now we have the first true overview of the situation and we find that not only did the forensic evidence support the Marines' version of the events, but also that the Iraqi claims contradict each other and the physical evidence. In addition their testimony was given in their language to an American who didn't understand it and relied on a translation provided by an interpreter.
A key facet of the testimony is the claim that the women and children were watched over by a Marine with a pistol, while others entered the second house. Testimony also claimed that the Marine with the pistol gave orders to the rest of the squad, but didn't participate in the shooting.
This is where to a trained eye, the testimony was coached. Normally, Marine officers and senior NCOs carry a pistol as their primary weapon and would be giving orders. But in this case, the relatively low-ranking Sharratt was assigned to carry an automatic weapon, but also had a sidearm as a backup weapon.
Beside the evidence showing that three terrorists were killed with a pistol, it is also important to understand that others in the house significantly outranked Sharratt and in no way would a Lance Corporal be giving orders to a sergeant and staff sergeant.
Obviously the testimony was given by people who don't understand the Marines' rank structure and thought that Sharratt carrying a pistol was an indication of higher rank. By claiming he was guarding them and issuing orders when the shootings occurred they obviously were trying to show that a high ranking Marine was ordering the 'executions.' Instead they proved that they didn't see the firefight and had no idea what really happened.
According to the report, the Iraqis were coached during their testimony by a lawyer who specializes in coercing American authorities to pay them for 'wrongful deaths.' After they testified they were paid at least $10,000, by our government, which amounts to four years' worth of an average Iraqi salary.
The final recommendation in the report puts all of this into clear perspective. It reads: "Ultimately there is only one statement by an eyewitness to the events, LCpl Sharratt, and his version of events is strongly corroborated by independent forensic analysis of the death scene."
But there is one other section of the report that really puts the nail in the coffin of the government's case as far as I am concerned: "Finally, to believe the government version of events is to ignore clear and convincing evidence to the contrary and sets a dangerous precedent that ... may encourage others to bear false witness against Marines as a tactic to erode public support of the Marine Corps and (the) mission in Iraq. Even more dangerous is the potential that a Marine may hesitate at the critical moment when facing the enemy."
As I said this is a preliminary finding that must go higher up the scale and while it doesn't have to be accepted, it should be. Finally, nearly two years after a squad of Marines put their lives on the line to do the job they were asked to do by their country, someone has stood up and shown this entire situation for what it really is, a travesty.
Behind the scenes, supporters have complained that the Marines charged in this incident have been treated unbelievably harshly, and their families have been under extreme pressure from the government as a means of coercing the squad members to testify against their brother Marines. They would have considered Guantanamo Bay where terrorists are held to be a country club compared to a Marine brig.
But there is more here. Officers who were no where near the scene have been charged with dereliction of duty, and careers have been ruined. Government investigators have been shown to be either horribly incompetent and incomplete in their work, or to have submitted reports that ultimately may be ruled falsifications.
When this is all said and done there are a number of things that should be undertaken at the direction of President Bush, the commander-in-chief.
First, the 'work' of the investigators that led to false charges against these Marines should be reviewed. In cases where incompetence is found, which shouldn't be too hard, the individuals involved should be charged with dereliction, demoted, and fired without benefits. In cases where outright falsification or unlawful methods of interrogation are found, the individuals should be charged with criminal acts and confined in a Marine brig for every second as long and under the exact same conditions as the Marines they falsely charged with murder and associated crimes.
The officer who reviewed the case makes a good point about the potential for Marines hesitating when they are in combat if they fear retribution from their own country for their actions. The counterpoint is that politically motivated investigators in the future should absolutely hesitate, to the point of inaction, when they are considering filing false charges against combat servicemen.
Those who would sacrifice the true fighters just to enhance their own careers should understand without question that if they put themselves above their duty and their country they should and will suffer severe consequences.
Thursday, July 12, 2007