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Horror in Haditha.

Byline: The Register-Guard

An ominous shadow crept over Memorial Day observances this year in the form of a one-word accusation from faraway Iraq's lawless Anbar province: Haditha.

Haditha, an insurgent stronghold 150 miles northwest of Baghdad, is poised to join Abu Ghraib as another needs-no-explanation stain on the nation's honor born of President Bush's foolhardy decision to invade Iraq.

Abu Ghraib has become synonymous with U.S. military abuse of Iraqi prisoners. The infamous prison's name is so evocative of a grievous wrong that President Bush on national television last week said, "I think the biggest mistake that's happened so far, at least from our country's involvement in Iraq, is Abu Ghraib."

That was before Haditha, which is about to become synonymous with massacre. On Nov. 19, 2005, Marines from Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, appear to have gone on a rampage in response to the death of one of their comrades in a roadside bomb attack.

A preliminary investigation indicates some of the Marines in Kilo Company went on a three- to five-hour killing spree during which four students and a driver in a taxi and 19 civilians in their homes were executed in cold blood. The victims, who were unarmed, included a 76-year-old amputee in a wheelchair and boys and girls ages 14, 10, 5, 4, 3 and 1.

The initial military response attempted to explain the unusual number of dead children by saying that a Marine and 15 civilians were killed in a roadside bomb blast. The first report indicated that the Marines in Kilo Company came under attack and returned fire, killing eight insurgents.

TIME magazine uncovered a different story after extensive interviews with military officials, investigators, local doctors and families of victims. Last March, TIME reported that the military's version of events didn't hold up, and a much more gruesome scenario had emerged. Only after TIME had turned over its findings, including a videotape shot by an Iraqi journalism student the day after the killings, did the military launch its own investigation.

Now, members of Congress who have been briefed on the ongoing investigation confirm TIME's account.

"There's no doubt that the Marines allegedly involved in doing this - they lied about it," said Rep. John Kline, a Minnesota Republican and former Marine who was briefed two weeks ago by Marine Corps officials. "They certainly tried to cover it up."

It is impossible to imagine the horror U.S. forces face in Iraq. The enemy, by design, wears no uniform and disguises his attacks in the everyday trappings of civilians. Anyone could be an insurgent, a suicide bomber, a sniper. It's the perfect strategy to provoke a conventional military force - even the best-trained, best-equipped military in the word - into hair-trigger treatment of the civilian populace.

When one side in a conflict ignores the international conventions of warfare, most of which are designed to protect civilians, it is inevitable that some combatants on the other side will succumb to war's lowest common denominator - killing people.

That's not an excuse for what happened in Haditha, which shames the vast majority of valiant and humane U.S. troops who would never commit such transgressions. But Americans need to get their heads out of the sand and face the reality of President Bush's clueless stay-the-course strategy in Iraq.

The longer U.S. forces remain trapped in a deteriorating war of attrition with a ruthless enemy who kills Americans from inside civilian homes and using civilian vehicles, the more likely the demons unleased in Haditha will strike again.
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Title Annotation:Editorials; Military probes massacre amid cries of cover-up
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:May 31, 2006
Next Article:The hunger pendulum.

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