It wasn’t until late 2004 that General George W. Casey Jr., who had taken command of the coalition forces in Iraq that summer, issued a campaign plan that focused on counterinsurgency, emphasizing the need for a genuine partnership with Iraqi forces. He inherited a military mess. Sunni jihadists had gathered strength by appealing to tribal religiosity. They preached that Americans were infidels crusading against Muslims and raising a Shiite army that would oppress the Sunnis. This greatly complicated the counterinsurgency task, because the Sunnis had to be persuaded that the new Iraqi army was secular and not sectarian.
In early 2005, the Marines launched an extended campaign in Anbar province to pry the Euphrates River valley, which runs 200 miles from Syria to Baghdad, loose from the insurgents. The intent was to chop up the “rat line” that allowed foreign fighters to slip in from Syria. Some unkindly compared the effort to the carnival game of Whac-a-Mole: until there were sufficient Iraqi forces to occupy the Sunni cities, the Americans could only jab and punch to keep the insurgents off balance.
In March, the Marines swept through Haditha as part of this operation, searching door to door. The insurgents slipped away. When the Marines left, the insurgents returned, rounded up nineteen remaining Iraqi police, marched them to the soccer stadium, and publicly executed them. A few days earlier, they had assassinated the new police chief and three of his family members.
The Marines responded by again stationing a full battalion in the area, Battalion 3/25, a reserve unit from Ohio. The cycle of hope, followed by abandonment, followed by executions and reprisals had worn down the population. This time the city council refused to meet with the Americans. Instead, a delegation asked that no progovernment messages be played by the local radio station. The surviving Sunni police had fled. The Associated Press quoted the American colonel in charge of the Haditha area as saying, “What I need most now is someone who can say, ‘This is a good guy, and this is a bad guy.’”
In August an English newspaper, The Guardian, smuggled an Iraqi journalist into Haditha. He slipped out to report that the city was tightly controlled by two terrorist gangs, one answering to al-Zarqawi and the other to a local radical. Executions of suspected spies had become a sport to entertain the crowds. When the Americans drove by on patrol, no one would point out an insurgent.
Battalion 3/25 stayed in Haditha for seven months and suffered some horrific losses. An IED killed fourteen marines in a single blast in August, the worst such explosion to date in the war. Efforts to recruit yet another local police force came to naught. The Americans patrolled the sullen streets alone.
That was the environment Battalion 3/1 inherited in the fall of 2005. A year earlier, Grapes’s men had fought their way through Fallujah, often destroying houses in a city largely devoid of civilians. Haditha was their first redeployment since then, after a few months retraining back at Camp Pendleton in the States. Grapes and several of the officers who’d fought by his side in Fallujah had gone back to civilian life; the platoon had new leaders, some of whom had not seen combat.
After Fallujah the veterans of the House From Hell, like other battle-scarred marines, had their own way of looking at houses on a street. “I don’t like to say it, but after a while, when you have the rifle, and you see how the Iraqis look at you and how they live,” said Corporal Connors, “then some of our guys feel superior—like the people in Haditha or Fallujah aren’t quite human like us. You don’t think of them the same way. That’s not right, but it does happen.”
On the morning of November 19, 2005, a thirteen-man squad mounted in four Humvees turned a corner and—boom!—the fourth Humvee in the column disappeared in a red flash and a thick cloud of smoke and dust. A popular lance corporal, Miguel “T.J.” Terrazas, was killed—ripped apart—and two other marines were badly burned.
Back at battalion headquarters, streaming video from an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle circling overhead showed a confused situation, with marines at various locations maneuvering amid radio chatter indicating incoming fire. The remaining ten men in Terrazas’s squad approached a car that had stopped nearby. When the five men inside started to flee, the marines shot and killed them. The platoon leader later reported that his men took fire from a nearby house. They assaulted first one house, and then a second. When the battle was over, fourteen Iraqi men, four women, and six children had been killed.
The tragedy was followed by eight months of investigations. Iraqis claim that enraged marines executed the civilians. Defense lawyers claim the deaths were accidents that occurred while the men were following the Rules of Engagement for clearing rooms when under fire. The ROE stipulate the circumstances under which a soldier may employ deadly force. In the Fallujah battle, Battalion 3/1 was fighting so fiercely that reporters referred to the ROE as “Enter every room with a boom.” But in Haditha, unlike Fallujah, there were civilians in the room.