Haditha's Recent History of Violence
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
We turn now to Haditha, which, before the alleged massacre, had been the setting for many violent acts in the last three years, although you wouldn't know to look at it, as Steve found out.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
We assembled a short biography of a town that news reports described simply as an insurgent hotbed. And one of the first things we learned is that Haditha used to be better known for music.
(Soundbite of music)
INSKEEP: That riverside town was associated with Sadi al-Hadithi(ph). He's an Iraqi folklorist who performed the traditional songs of Arab nomads. His tapes are played in Baghdad and he performed as far away as Boston and Chicago.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. SADI AL-HADITHI (Iraqi Folklorist): (Singing in foreign language)
INSKEEP: Al-Hadithi's town was west of Baghdad, in the overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim reaches of Anbar Province. It was a vacation spot for Iraqis who wanted to escape the city, among them Sama Rasheed(ph), an NPR interpreter.
Mr. SAMA RASHEED (NPR Interpreter): Haditha is a small town, just by the river. It's well known with its famous ancient water wheels on the river.
INSKEEP: The water wheels that he mentioned turned in the current of the Euphrates River. They lift water into ancient aqueducts, just as they've done for centuries.
Mr. RASHEED: Before the war, when things were good, we used every summer to go there. You know, spend two, three months fishing, swimming. All along the town, you find orchards, palm trees. It's a really nice place.
INSKEEP: Even after the U.S. occupation began, Sunni Muslims flocked to Haditha. They felt safer in a mostly Sunni town. And unlike so much of Iraq, Haditha had consistent power from a nearby hydroelectric dam. Very early in the occupation, American troops seized control of that dam and established a base there. But in the summer of 2003, a mysterious killing showed it would not be easy to control the town nearby.
Mr. TOM LASSITER (Reporter, Knight Ridder): It was very confusing. We couldn't figure out quite what had happened, you know, only that there was a car full of bullet holes.
INSKEEP: Knight Ridder Reporter Tom Lassiter traveled to Haditha after the mayor was murdered.
Mr. LASSITER: At the time, the general thinking was that he was killed because he had been speaking with the Americans, but we went out there and came to find that it was a lot more complicated than that.
There were allegations that the mayor had been setting up road blocks in town, and he was, essentially, stealing cars and then selling them across the border. A lot of these towns have, you know, for centuries been smuggling lines, and it just really went a long way toward showing the complexity of trying to figure out what was going on in Iraq at the time.
Mr. AL-HADITHI: (Singing in foreign language)
INSKEEP: It would only get harder to know the enemy. In 2005, Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations alleged that U.S. troops killed his cousin in Haditha. The ambassador's name is Samir Sumaidaie.
Ambassador SAMIR SUMAIDAIE (Iraqi Ambassador, United Nations): A single bullet had penetrated his neck, and he was in a pool of blood. He was unarmed; that's for sure. He was not hostile, and he had absolutely no connection with terrorists.
INSKEEP: The U.S. military has said it's investigating the incident. Yet, there was no doubt that Haditha was becoming a gathering place for Iraqi insurgents. Reporter Tom Lassiter says it was a haven for Iraqis driven out of other Euphrates River towns like Fallujah.
Mr. LASSITER: They looked for other places in Anbar where there were not concentrations of U.S. soldiers or Marines. Ramadi has been bad. Hit has been bad. Certainly, Fallujah has been bad. Haqrameah(ph) has been bad. Kine(ph) has been bad. Karbala has been bad. And Haditha was very much one of those towns.
INSKEEP: Iraqi journalist Omar Mahdi(ph) traveled to Haditha in the summer of 2005. He says he saw insurgents who had just conducted a public execution. It happened on the main bridge on the way into town.
Mr. OMAR MAHDI (Iraqi Journalist): And there were a bunch of people collected, and they just finished the execution of one man, and they left him on the bridge with his head on the top of his back.
INSKEEP: Are you saying that he was beheaded?
Mr. MAHDI: (Unintelligible) Yeah, he was beheaded. Also, you can see all the blood on the bridge, because you can imagine the previous executions that happened here.
INSKEEP: Omar Mahdi says he saw few signs of a functioning local government. Instead, people referred their problems to masked gunmen. To Americans, they were insurgents or terrorists, but in Haditha they were called mujahideen, holy warriors.
In August of last year, a roadside bomb outside Haditha killed 14 American Marines. Within a week, attacks killed six more troops in the same unit. Around the same time, reporter Tom Lassiter followed U.S. Marines as they moved into southern Haditha.
Mr. LASSITER: The first two or three days, you would see heavy fighting, and then the insurgents would, you know, throw down their weapons and leave town or go back to farming. And that would leave the Marines sort of going door-to-door trying to figure out who the insurgents were. Then those who were not insurgents oftentimes would not talk, because they knew the Marines were probably going to leave in a week and the insurgents would still be there. You know, it was very much a cat and mouse game, which leads to a tremendous amount of frustration for the troops.
INSKEEP: Long after he left Haditha, Marine Lance Corporal James Crossan had vivid memories of the place.
Lance Corporal JAMES CROSSAN (United States Marine Corps): The insurgents are getting a lot smarter, so one minute you talk to them, the next minute they'll be stabbing you in the back.
INSKEEP: He was interviewed last week on Seattle television station King TV and said he came to view even children as possible threats.
Lance Cpl. CROSSAN: We used to go out on patrol and have little kids count the patrols. We couldn't really do anything except grab them and throw them inside their houses (unintelligible). You just can't tell who the bad guys are.
INSKEEP: Last November, Lance Cpl. Crossan was on patrol in Haditha when a roadside bomb exploded. One of his fellow Marines was killed. Crossan was wounded and says he has no memory of what happened next. As many as 24 civilians, including children, were killed, allegedly at the hands of U.S. Marines. For now, those deaths define Haditha, one ancient town along the Euphrates River in Iraq.
Mr. AL-HADITHI: (Singing in foreign language)
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