June 9th, 2006
Evidence accumulates of a hoax in Haditha. The weblog Sweetness & Light has done an estimable service gathering together the articles which cast substantial doubt on the charge of a massacre of civilians at Haditha . Because the blog is too busy gathering and fisking the news, I offered and the publisher accepted my offer to put what he has uncovered in a narrative form.
Having done so, I can tell you that the story has a whiff of yet another mediagenic scandal like the TANG memos or the Plame “outing.” While the Marines quite correctly will not comment on the case pending the outcome of their investigation, I am not bound by those rules, and I will sum up the story for you.
(a) On November 20, 2005, Reuters reported that on the previous day an IED killed a US Marine and 15 civilians in Haditha, a town known to be a center of the insurgency, a town as hostile to our forces as the better known Fallujah was. Reuters reported that “immediately after the blast, gunmen opened fire on the convoy” and US and Iraqi forces returned fire, killing 8 insurgents and wounding another in the fight. The paper further reported that “A cameraman working for Reuters in Haditha says bodies had been left lying in the street for hours after the attack.” Reuters never named this cameraman but he was almost undoubtedly Ali al-Mashhadani.
(b) Ali al-Mashhadani had been imprisoned for five months before his report because of his ties to insurgents. He was subsequently placed under another 12 days in detention for being a security threat.
(c) Tim McGirk of Time wrote about the incident at Haditha for the March 27 issue of the magazine. He unsuccessfully lobbied his editors to use the term “massacre” in the story. McGirk seems hardly a neutral reporter. He spent the first Thanksgiving after 9/11 in Afghanistan dining with the Taliban and concluding of this celebratory meal:
Our missing colleagues finally arrive, and I leave thinking that maybe this evening wasn’t very different from the original Thanksgiving: people from two warring cultures sharing a meal together and realizing, briefly, that we’re not so different after all.
Right, Tim. We all want to enslave women, bend the world to Sharia law, behead nonbelievers and otherwise carry on the honored traditions of the Taliban.
A key source for McGirk’s report that US Marines in Haditha had deliberately attacked civilians was Thaer al-Hadithi. whom McGirk inexplicably described as “a budding journalism student”. He is a middle-aged man, and was subsequently described by the AP as an “Iraqi investigator.”
McGirk also failed to note that Hadithi is “a member and spokesman for the Hammurabi.” The chairman of Hammurabi Organization and Hadithi’s partner in publicizing the “massacre” is Abdul–Rahman al-Mashhadani. It is unknown if he is related to Ali al-Mashhadani but their names suggest a possible relationship, and it beggars belief that as Sweetness& Light notes,
“Abdel Rahman al-Mashhadani just happened to be given a video by and unnamed local. And that he then turned it over to Ali al-Mashhadani who just happens to make videos for Reuters.”
Hadithi’s story is that was staying near to one of the two houses where the massacre occurred and saw it with his own eyes. According to his version of events he waited one day to videotape what had occurred, though apparently nothing prevented his doing so from the very window he “watched” it from as it took place. More troubling is why he waited months to turn the tape over to anyone.
The actions of his partner al-Mashhadani are equally puzzling. On December 15, 2005 Mashhadani was interviewed by the Institute for War and Peace which described him as “an election monitor.” In that interview he expressed great satisfaction with the election turnout (which in fact was terribly low in Haditha). Why did he not mention to this apparently sympathetic group one word about the supposed “atrocity” which he claimed had occurred three months earlier?
Hammurabi apparently did share the video in March with the largely Soros-funded Human Rights Watch which in turn provided it to Time.
(d) The videotape. On March 21, 2006 Reuters reported that Hadithi and Mashhadani’s organization, the Hammurabi Organization, had provided the organization was a copy of a videotape showing corpses lined up in the Haditha morgue, claiming these were the bodies of civilians deliberately killed by the Marines. Aside from the suspiciously-timed release of the video and the fact that chairman al-Mashhadani had never mentioned the incident or the tape in December when he was interviewed, the video shows people removing bodies from a home, a report at odds with the Reuters report the day after the incident which spoke of bodies lying in the street.
(e) The witnesses to the “massacre”
(1) The Doctor.
In the March 27 report, McGirk quotes the local doctor:
Dr. Wahid, director of the local hospital in Haditha, who asked that his family name be withheld because, he says, he fears reprisals by U.S. troops, says the Marines brought 24 bodies to his hospital around midnight on Nov. 19. Wahid says the Marines claimed the victims had been killed by shrapnel from the roadside bomb. “But it was obvious to us that there were no organs slashed by shrapnel,” Wahid says. “The bullet wounds were very apparent. Most of the victims were shot in the chest and the head–from close range.”
Another report however, indicates the doctor bore considerable animus to the US troops.
(2)The Iraqi eye-witnesses.
In “Haditha: Reasonable Doubt,” Andrew Walden describes how a similar case against British soldiers fell apart , describing the Arabic “blood money” tradition which hardly is as exotic as it sounds. Ask the American Trial Lawyers Association.
Reports of the eyewitnesses are conflicting and incredible. Al-Haditha was the source of a report by the AP on the death of a man whom the Washington Post quoted 10 times as an eyewitness on May 27,six months after his reported death, and the young girl “survivor” has given between two and four utterly inconsistent versions of the events.
(3) The American eye witnesses.
There are two American witnesses who have spoken out. Despite the press spin, neither has a first hand account of the events.
Lance Cpl. James Crossan is the source of some very selective quotes on the incident. He, however, was wounded in the IED explosion which killed the US Marine Martin Terrazas. He was evacuated from the scene and saw none of the after-action.
And then there is Lance Cpl. Ryan Briones. He helped evacuate Crossnan and took bodies to the morgue. He was not an eyewitness. He claims he took pictures of the bodies at the morgue and has made various statements about what happened to the pictures and his camera. Aside from the fact that he is not an eyewitness, and his claims about his photographs seem unlikely, his story remained unuttered until he was arrested for stealing a truck, driving under the influence and crashing the stolen vehicle into a house. It was then for the first time that he claimed post traumatic distress and pointed to Haditha as the source of that stress. (His report of taking the bodies to the morgue, moreover, seems inconsistent with the first Reuters report that there were 15 bodies left lying in the street the day after the incident.)
The sum and substance of this thumbnail sketch on the Haditha claims is that it follows so closely the template for the TANG and Plame stories. Take a reporter with an anti-Administration agenda, an interested group (think of the Mashhadanis as the VIPS in the Plame case or Burkett and Lucy Ramirez in the TANG case) and a story too good to be checked and circumstances where the people attacked are limited in what they can quickly respond to and you get a story which smells to me like it will soon be unraveled.
This time, I’m betting the consequences to the press which rushed to judgment will be more disastrous than it was to Dan Rather. I surely hope so.
Clarice Feldman is an attorney in Washington, DC and a frequent contributor.