After Haditha, the Silence

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Since the revelation this week that U.S. Marines may have been responsible for the death of 15 civilians in the western Iraq town of Haditha, first reported by TIME, there has been a major outcry but little action. But now that the Haditha tragedy is out in the open, the U.S. military must act quickly and decisively to reassure Iraqis that the killing of innocents by American arms will not be lost in the fog of war.

In an environment where insurgents and terrorists routinely massacre civilians without remorse or restitution, it is vital that Iraqis know the U.S. military holds itself to a higher standard — that when American soldiers kill (by accident or intention) non-combatants, the military investigates the matter rigorously and punishes anybody guilty of wrongdoing. This is what separates the good guys from the bad guys.

The conviction this week of Sgt. Michael Smith in the Abu Ghraib case may help make the point — the dog-handler is the 10th soldier to be convicted in connection with the prisoner-abuse scandal. But it is a point that needs frequent reinforcement, and Haditha is an opportunity to do just that.

Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, commander of the Multinational Corps in Iraq, has declined to comment on the Haditha case since it is still under investigation. In legal terms, this is entirely correct. But it would be bad p.r. for the military to simply wait for the report by the Naval Criminal Investigation Service (NCIS), which could be several weeks away. Long silences fuel suspicions of cover-ups and encourage conspiracy theories.

While the investigators go to work in Haditha, the military should explain to the townspeople — and to Iraqis in general — what it is doing to ensure that justice is done. In the U.S., the fact that the NCIS is on the case is a sign that the wheels of justice are moving. But in Iraq, the idea that the military is investigating its own is troubling and suspicious. It is hard for Iraqis to believe that the NCIS can be impartial. After all, their own national investigative and legal bodies, civilian and military alike, were thoroughly corrupt and unreliable during the Saddam era.

Gen. Chiarelli has a small army of public affairs officers (PAOs) at his disposal in Iraq. And the Pentagon has admitted it has paid to have "positive" stories published in the Iraqi media. These resources should now be used to explain what the NCIS does, show how it is insulated from outside pressure, and provide examples of Marines who have in the past been found guilty by the NCIS and punished.

It will not be easy to persuade Iraqis that a cover-up is not already under way. After all, the Marines’ first report of the incident claimed that the civilians had been killed by a roadside bomb, and not by the Marines themselves. Nor does it help that the military waited months before launching a serious investigation. But every effort must be made to undo that damage and allay suspicions.

And speed is essential, because accusations of wrongdoing by American soldiers continue to come thick and fast. Last week Iraqi police said U.S. soldiers killed 11 civilians — including five children — during a raid in the town of Balad. It is especially worrying that the accusation comes from the police. If it is true, we’re looking at a terrible atrocity and a p.r. disaster of the order of Abu Ghraib; if it is false, then it raises questions about the quality of the police force that is being trained by the U.S.-led Coalition.

In the overheated atmosphere of Iraq, such dreadful allegations are inevitable — and most of the time entirely false. But Iraqis need to know that when something like Haditha happens, the U.S. military takes it seriously.

TIME Senior Correspondent Aparisim Ghosh has covered Iraq for more than three years. He returned last week from Baghdad, where he reported on the Haditha story