On Scene: Picking up the Pieces In Haditha

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Marine walks along the Euphates River during a predawn patrol in Haditha last November

On Hay al-Sinnani Road today, there are no telltale signs of what happened that bloody November morning. The spot where the IED went off, killing Lance Corporal Miguel Terazzas and starting the chain of terrible events, has been repaired with fresh concrete. The four houses where the tragedy unfolded have recently been patched up. The bullet holes have been filled, the scorch marks from FRAG grenades painted over and walls repaired. “A stranger would not know anything special had happened there,” says Taher Thabet, a local journalism student and human-rights worker whose video first brought the Haditha massacre to TIME's attention. “But those of us who live there, we look at the fresh concrete or the new paint and we know what was there before.”

Residents of the neighborhood, known as Al-Subhani, say they find themselves constantly replaying in their minds the gory details of the massacre that killed 24 Iraqi men, women and children. Six months on, “even our children are still talking about it constantly,” says Thabet, whose own house was barely 100 yards from the IED explosion. “This was a big thing to happen to a small neighborhood. Our memories of that day will forever be fresh.”

Those memories would have come in handy for sleuths of the U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS, who have spent time in Haditha in recent weeks, to uncover the facts of the massacre. Belated as the investigation was, the residents of Hay al-Sinnani say they were gratified by its thoroughness. That there have been three separate enquiries suggests the U.S. military “want to get at the truth,” says Walid Abdel Khaliq, the doctor of the Haditha morgue where the victims' bodies were taken.

They were especially impressed by the NCIS investigators. “They must have visited the houses 15 times,” says Khalid Raseef, a spokesman for the victims' kin and uncle of Emaan and Abdel Rahman Waleed, the children who lost almost their entire immediate family in the massacre. The investigators “asked detailed questions, examined each bullet hole and burn mark, and took all sorts of measurements. In the end, they brought all the survivors to the homes and did a mock-up of the Marines' movements. It was a very professional investigation.”

The families say they cooperated fully with the NCIS, but drew the line at exhumation; investigators' requests for the bodies to be dug up for forensic examination were flatly turned down by the families. Islam doesn't permit bodies to be disturbed after burial.

Raseef also commends the investigators for the sensitivity to the families' concerns, reassuring them that the enquiries would not be swept under the carpet. “One of them said to me, 'I have been sent here personally by President Bush to make sure that justice is done,” he says.

Even so, few in the neighborhood expect the Marines to be adequately punished for their role in the massacre. They point to the Abu Ghraib trials, which many Iraqis feel have resulted in only light sentences for the offending guards. Asked what punishment would be appropriate for those who killed the 24 Iraqis on Hay al-Sinnani, Raseef responds angrily, “There's only one appropriate punishment: a bullet in the head.”

Thabet, the human rights worker, feels the same way. “These are people who didn't just kill individuals, they destroyed entire families,” he says. “In Islam, the punishment for such a crime is death.”

The Marines initially denied that they had killed anybody, claiming 15 Iraqis had been killed, like Terazzas, in the IED explosion. After being confronted with evidence by TIME, the military said the deaths had been an accident — a case of “collateral damage.” But the victims' families and other eyewitnesses have always maintained that the Marines acted in revenge for the death of Terazzas “You could tell they were enraged,” says Thabet. “They not only killed people, they smashed furniture, tore down wall hangings, and when they took prisoners, they treated them very roughly. This was not a precise military operation.”

If the families are skeptical of U.S. military justice, they have even fewer expectations of their own government. Thabet, Raseef and Khaliq all say they have not received a single enquiry from the Iraqi government in Baghdad. “In their eyes, we are nobodies,” says Raseef, bitterly.

Curiously, no political group has sought to make capital out of the Haditha massacre. It says a great deal of the huge gap between Iraq's politicians (who tend to restrict themselves within the safe confines of Baghdad's highly protected Green Zone) and its people that not a single politician has bothered to visit Haditha, or even sent condolences to the bereaved families. Some Sunni leaders have mentioned the massacre in speeches, but only in the most desultory manner. “There are so many atrocities against our people,” says Saleh Mutlak, a prominent Sunni politician and member of parliament. “Everybody knows these things.”

Insurgent groups have actually made more of the massacre. Within days of TIME's story (which was picked up by the Arab media), pamphlets appeared in Haditha, congratulating “those who participated in exposing the dirty deeds of the Americans.” The pamphlets were released by a group using the name “Islamic Resistance” — a cover for the terrorist group Ansar al-Sunnah. TIME's story was cited in websites and Internet bulletin boards known to be used by insurgent groups. The families say they have never been contacted by any insurgents.

Marines continue to patrol al-Subhani; on Hay al-Sinnani, there are convoys of Humvees practically every other day. There are occasional foot patrols. The week after the massacre, the Marines were edgy and hostile. “They would get on top of the roofs of our houses and point their guns around,” says Thabet. “They would constantly tell us, 'We know some terrorists have passed this way; where did they go?'” Gradually, the patrols returned to normal.

Since TIME's story and the investigations that followed, residents say the Marines have become more restrained in their behavior. “Before, when they heard a gunshot, they would start firing in all directions,” says Raseef. “Now, they rarely fire at all.”

Two weeks ago, a Marine on foot patrol came up to Thabet's home, stopped and smiled at Thabet's two little daughters who were playing in the yard. He gave them some candy. Peering into the house, he saw Thabet's sister making fresh Iraqi bread in the oven. “Can I have some?” he asked. Thabet says the rules of Arab hospitality obliged him to invite the soldier into the yard and share his bread. As they ate, the two men made small talk — the Marine spoke some broken Arabic, and Thabet has a little English. When Thabet gave him a business card, which says he works for Hamurabi Human Rights, which produced the incriminating videotape, the Marine grew apologetic. “He told me that the men who killed my neighbors were not typical Marines,” Thabet recalls. “Even among the Marines, they are known as the 'Dirty Force.' Then he said, 'For myself, I don't think killing 15 Iraqis is a fair response for the death of one Marine.'”

For the most part, the residents of al-Subhani welcome the kinder, gentler face of the Marines. But they say the damage done by Terazzas's company on that November morning cannot be undone. “I was an admirer of America,” says Khaliq, the morgue doctor. “When those bodies were brought here, it turned upside down my image of that country and its people.” Of the Marine with whom he shared bread, Thabet says: “He spoke to me politely, and I respect him for that.” But reciprocating the friendly gestures would be asking too much. “As long as they come as bearing guns, we will be reminded of what their colleagues did to our friends and family,” says Thabet. “We will not forgive.”