BAGHDAD -- Witnesses to the slayings of as many as two dozen Iraqi civilians, allegedly by US Marines, in the western town of Haditha in November say the Americans shot men, women, and children at close range in retaliation for the death of a Marine lance corporal in a roadside bombing.
Aws Fahmi, a Haditha resident who said he watched and listened from his home as Marines went from house to house killing members of three families, recalled hearing his neighbor across the street, Younis Salim Khafif, plead in English for the lives of himself and his family.
``I heard Younis speaking to the Americans, saying: `I am a friend. I am good,' " said Fahmi. ``But they killed him, and his wife and daughters."
The 24 Iraqi civilians slain on Nov. 19 included children and the women who were trying to shield them, witnesses told a
The descriptions of events provided to the Post by witnesses in Haditha could not be independently verified, though their accounts of the number of casualties and their identities were corroborated by death certificates.
Two US military boards are investigating the incident as potentially the gravest violation of the law of war by US forces in the three-year-old conflict in Iraq. The US military ordered the probes after Time magazine presented military officials in Baghdad this year with the findings of its own investigation, based on accounts from survivors and on a videotape shot by an Iraqi journalism student at Haditha's hospital and inside houses.
An investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service into the killings and a separate military probe into an alleged coverup afterward are slated to end in the next few weeks. Marines have briefed members of the Senate Armed Services Committee and other officials on the findings; some of the officials briefed say the evidence is damaging. Charges of murder, dereliction of duty and making a false statement are likely, people familiar with the case said yesterday.
A spokesman at Marine Corps headquarters in the Pentagon, Lieutenant Colonel Scott Fazekas, declined to comment on the status of the investigation. He said no information would be provided until the probe was completed.
Haditha is one of a chain of farm towns on the Euphrates River where US and Iraqi forces have battled foreign and local insurgents without resolution for much of the war. The first account of the killings there was a false or erroneous statement issued the next day, Nov. 20, by a US Marine spokesman from a Marine base in Ramadi: ``A US Marine and 15 civilians were killed yesterday from the blast of a roadside bomb in Haditha. Immediately following the bombing, gunmen attacked the convoy with small arms fire. Iraqi Army soldiers and Marines returned fire killing eight insurgents and wounding another."
The event was touched off when a roadside bomb struck a supply convoy of Kilo Company, Third Battalion, First Marine Regiment, based at Camp Pendleton, Calif. The explosion killed Lance Corporal Miguel Terrazas, 20, of El Paso, who was on his second tour in Iraq.
``Everybody agrees that this was the triggering event. The question is, what happened afterward?" said Paul Hackett, an attorney for a Marine officer with a slight connection to the case.
In the first minutes after the shock of the blast, residents said, silence reigned on the street of walled courtyards, brick homes and tiny palm groves. Marines appeared stunned, or purposeful, as they moved around the burning Humvee, witnesses said.
Then one of the Marines took charge, shouting, said Fahmi, who was watching from his roof. Fahmi said he saw the shouting Marine direct other Marines into the house closest to the blast, about 50 yards away.
It was the home of Abdul Hamid Hassan Ali, 76. Although he had used a wheelchair since diabetes forced a leg amputation years ago, Ali was always one of the first on his block to go out every morning, scattering scraps for his chickens and hosing the dust of the arid western town from his driveway, neighbors said.
In the house with Ali and his 66-year-old wife, Khamisa Tuma Ali, were three of the middle-aged men of their family, at least one daughter-in-law and four children -- 4-year-old Abdullah, 8-year-old Iman, 5-year-old Abdul Rahman, and 2-month-old Asia.
Marines entered, shooting, witnesses recalled. Most of the shots -- in Ali's house and two others -- were fired at such close range that they went through the bodies of the family members and plowed into walls or the floor, doctors at Haditha's hospital said.
A daughter-in-law, identified as Hibbah, escaped with Asia, survivors and neighbors said. Iman and Abdul Rahman were shot but survived. Four-year-old Abdullah, Ali and the rest died.
Ali took nine rounds in the chest and abdomen, according to his death certificate.
The Marines moved to the house next door, Fahmi said.
Inside were 43-year-old Khafif, 41-year-old Aeda Yasin Ahmed, an 8-year-old son, five young daughters, and a 1-year-old girl staying with the family, according to death certificates and neighbors.
The Marines shot them at close range and hurled grenades into the kitchen and bathroom, survivors and neighbors said later. Four of the girls died.
Only 13-year-old Safa Younis lived -- saved, she said, because she had her mother's blood on her, making her look dead when she fell.
Moving to the third house in the row, Marines burst in on four brothers, Marwan, Qahtan, Chasib, and Jamal Ahmed. Neighbors said the Marines killed the four brothers together.
Marine officials said later that one of the brothers had the only gun found among the three families, although there has been no known allegation that the weapon was fired.
Meanwhile, a separate group of Marines found at least one other house full of young men. The Marines led the men in that house outside, some still in their underwear, and away to detention.
Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.