Rules of Engagement(7:00) Investigating the killing of 24 civilians in Haditha, Iraq by U.S. Marines and the moral and legal landscape facing the military.

Newly Discovered Documents Recount Killing of Iraqi Citizens in Haditha

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It’s a pretty amazing find: 400 pages of Marine interrogations about a 2005 incident in Haditha in which 24 Iraqis — including women, children and an elderly man — were killed. A New York Times reporter uncovered the classified documents in a junkyard just outside Baghdad; intended for destruction, they were being burned for fuel to cook smoked carp.

As the U.S. formally ends the war in Iraq, what happened at Haditha stands out as one of the most controversial episodes of the fighting — and one of the most telling in terms of how the war affected both Iraqi civilians and U.S. soldiers. The Times Michael S. Schmidt puts it eloquently, if not hauntingly:

Haditha became a defining moment of the war, helping cement an enduring Iraqi distrust of the United States and a resentment that not one Marine has been convicted.

But the accounts are just as striking for what they reveal about the extraordinary strains on the soldiers who were assigned here, their frustrations and their frequently painful encounters with a population they did not understand. In their own words, the report documents the dehumanizing nature of this war, where Marines came to view 20 dead civilians as not “remarkable,” but as routine.

The testimony uncovered by the Times underscores the frustrations of U.S. soldiers, some of whom, “feeling they were under attack constantly, decided to use force first and ask questions later.” Maj. Gen. Steve Johnson, who was in charge of American forces in Anbar Province, where Haditha is located, testified that the civilian deaths were “a cost of doing business.”

The killings in Haditha occurred on Nov. 19, 2005, after a roadside bomb killed one Marine and injured several others.

The new documents echo what the Marines from Kilo Company who were there that day told us in the above clip from our 2008 film Rules of Engagement: The events in Haditha were seen as just another day serving in Iraq, with violence of this magnitude all too common. A press release [PDF] filed a day after the incident describes the casualties as follows:

A U.S. Marine and 15 Iraqi civilians were killed yesterday from the blast of a roadside bomb in Haditha.

As our film continues, however, these briefly-noted deaths become a turning point in both Iraq and the U.S. The men, women and children who died — and how they died — become the focus of investigations by both the media and the military, forcing a close examination of the rules of engagement and civilian casualties during the Iraq war.

View the full film here. Also watch our video interviews with Marines in Kilo Company about the challenges of combat in Iraq, and read more about the significance of what happened in Haditha.

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