Haditha

Week one ‘Haditha’ Marine trial analysis Part II: the counter-attack upon houses 1 and 2

United States Marine Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich stands accused of 9 counts of voluntary manslaughter, 2 counts of assault with a dangerous weapon, 3 counts of dereliction of duty, and “responsible for the deaths of 19 civilians” in Haditha, Iraq. The trial is expected to take four weeks. The prosecution began its case last Monday. If you have not, please first read Part I. Part II completes my analysis of the trial to date and includes key testimony that the media has failed to report. Part II begins immediately after SSgt Wuterich has eliminated the threat posed by five military-aged men moving near a white car across the road from the lead Humvee in his resupply convoy. [Updated January 20, 2012]

Approximately 200 feet behind Wuterich, a buried IED had been set off. The driver of the 4th Humvee was dead and two more lay wounded. From about 75 ft away, Wuterich had eliminated by fire the threat posed by five military-aged men near a white car. He turned, went to the 3rd Humvee, radioed-in HQs a situation update, and then went to his wounded Marines. “Doc” Whitt, Tatum, and Salinas preceded him, while under enemy fire, in reaching the stricken vehicle.

Salinas testified Thursday he exchanged fire with a man to his south on the side of house #1:

“Rounds were impacting on the fourth vehicle. I went back to render aid to my Marines that were wounded. There was destruction everywhere. There was a fog, a haze. When the smoke was clearing out I could see an object. It was LCpl Crossan. He was missing a couple of fingers. His body armor was obstructing his airway … “I got as low as I could because I heard rounds coming. It was the impact of the rounds hitting the high back. I got low on the deck,” he said.

Salinas described an ugly, bitter war, a no-quarter environment where innocent victims found themselves on November 19, 2005. Al Anbar Province lived [what] was a waste land after two bloody years of internecine warfare.

“On the outside of the house, on the east side of the house, I saw a small silhouette. Things look small that far away. It was a tall man. There was rounds impacting around me, so I engaged him. I used my M-16. I shot more than twice but not the entire magazine,” he told prosecutor Lt Col Sean Sullivan. “Then I took my 203 (M-203 40mm grenade launcher attached underneath his rifle) and fired rounds on the house — fired two or three.” It was while trying to find Crossan’s fingers, he explained.

LT William Kallop was Wuterich’s platoon leader and led the quick reaction force to Route Chestnut in Haditha. Kallop testified Friday that:

“…he believed the ambush was the beginning of the long anticipated counterattack by insurgents who had infiltrated into the city. … Wuterich gave him a brief report. After making sure the squad leader of the Quick Reaction Force began evacuating the two wounded Marines still lying on the road, he gave Wuterich the order to “clear South” to suppress incoming fire the ambushed Marines had observed coming from what later became known as House 1 and 2.”

The Los Angeles Times reported Saturday:

“[Kallop] believed insurgents inside the house were firing on Marines and thus the house could be deemed “hostile.” … A Marine lawyer, testifying after Kallop, gave a different interpretation of the rules of engagement. Maj. Kathryn Navin, who had lectured Marines before they deployed, said a house cannot be declared hostile unless the people inside are known to have “hostile intent” or have committed “hostile acts.” But Kallop said that in training at Camp Pendleton and March Reserve Air Base, and at briefings delivered in Iraq, Marines were not told they needed to identify individual targets as threatening when assaulting a “hostile” structure.

What the Times did not report was Major Navin had previously testified a house “could be declared ‘hostile.'” That fact came out during cross-examination when Navin was asked to read a transcript of her own testimony from August 2007, according to trial observer Heidi (Hamilton) Anselmo who I spoke with by phone last night. When asked by defense counsel to explain her previous testimony, Navin offered, “Maybe I got mixed up.”

President Barack Obama, former President George W. Bush, and literally hundreds of U.S. military officers would be facing prosecution if [Major Navin’s interpretations of] the Marine Corps’ ROE applied to them; they have ordered airstrikes upon houses without first personally identifying that everyone within them had “hostile intent” or had committed “hostile acts.” While at the ambush site, Kallop received reports from Wuterich and other Marines of enemy fire coming from house #1. Salinas had marked it as a target with M203 grenades. It was then clear to Kallop, Wuterich, and Salinas the enemy was using the house for military purposes and eliminating the threat posed to their Marines was necessary self-defense (See the ROE card they carried.)

Intelligence officer Major Don Dinsmore will testify today at the trial. He fought what is known as the ‘intelligence battle’ for 3/1 that day in Haditha, recorded in real time the enemy’s positions and activities, assessed the information, and sent a stream of intelligence to the Marines on the ground. Each of Kilo Company’s four platoons fought battles within a half-mile of the initial IED blast. Before you read media reports after Dinsmore testifies, perhaps you should first read Nat Helm’s report about his July 2007 interview of Cpl Joe Haman. His squad was manning a combat observation post that morning 600 meters south of the IED-initiated ambush. Including Haman, 7 Marines and a Navy Corpsman were wounded during a “grenade throwing contest” with insurgents later that morning:

“Somebody said his [Terrazas] number, but we didn’t know who it was. We just knew somebody had been killed or wounded,” Haman said. … About 30 minutes before Haman’s squad was called into action … Then a nearby helicopter reported to headquarters that a large group of insurgents were fleeing out the back of the small cluster of houses now under counter-attack by Wuterich’s squad. The pilot spotted the insurgents when they abandoned the houses where the civilians died, Haman said.”

During his first combat action, Wuterich led three combat veterans of the 2nd Battle of Falluja in a combat assault upon house 1 and 2 to eliminate the threat. The Haditha massacre of innocent civilians was designed by lesser men; justice needs brought to them for that war crime. In Haditha, honorable Marines fought as they were trained. The enemy is solely to blame for every death that occurred that day; Al Qaeda and Sunni insurgents hid among and initiated fights behind defenseless women, children, and old men.

Regardless of anyone’s opinion about the need to invade Iraq, America owed Frank Wuterich far better than a court-martial. [He led] Marines caught within an ambush in a series of counter-attacks to defeat the enemy while complying the best he could with ambiguous Rules of Engagement.

SSgt Wuterich lived up to his enlistment oath to “obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over” him, at dire risk to his own life. America sends its sons and daughters to war to fight, win, and survive, not on suicide missions. They bravely fight counter-insurgent warfare on our behalf and must live with haunting memories of collateral damages. The criminalization of our warriors must end.

Week one ‘Haditha’ Marine trial analysis Part I: An ambush on Route Chestnut and the white car

United States Marine Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich stands accused of 9 counts of voluntary manslaughter, 2 counts of assault with a dangerous weapon, 3 counts of dereliction of duty, and “responsible for the deaths of 19 civilians” in Haditha, Iraq. The trial is expected to take four weeks. The prosecution began its case last Monday. What follows is key testimony that the media has failed to report and my analysis of the trial to date. [Note: This analysis was updated on January 17, 2012.]

The ambiguous Rules of Engagement card carried by our Marines that day included these requirements: “Do not fire into civilian populated areas or buildings unless the enemy is using them for military purposes or if necessary for your self-defense. Minimize collateral damage.” Near its end, it correctly defined the mission: “Attack enemy forces and military targets. Spare civilians and civilian property, if possible.”

Tuesday, LCpl Stephen Tatum testified:

Tatum acknowledged the night before the convoy his squad had been briefed to expect trouble. They were warned to watch out for snipers active everywhere in Haditha and the infamous white cars that insurgents were using as Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (VBIEDs).

SSgt Wuterich and Sgt Sanick Dela Cruz were undoubtedly at the mission briefing. White cars would be on their minds the next morning — November 19, 2005 — when Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment was at war. [Update 7:25 PM: LT Kallop also testified that he conducted the mission briefing; Wuterich and Dela Cruz were present.]

On Friday, LT William Kallop, Kilo Company’s 3rd platoon and quick reaction force (QRF) leader testified:

He told the eight member panel that intelligence reports rolling in prior to the ambush indicated that the al Qaeda-led insurgency was regrouping around Haditha to try and reestablish control of the embattled region. “There was fire around the city at this time. One time Iraqi soldiers fired and told us they saw insurgents running. One of our Marines had shot an individual running,” Kallop told prosecutor Maj. Nicholas Gannon. [I will return to his testimony during my analysis of the counter-attack upon houses 1 and 2.]

3/1 took over the 90,000-person city of Haditha without firing a shot in early October 2005. Over the next 6 weeks, they discovered and eliminated 190 IEDs, and sent two-dozen suspected insurgents off to higher HQs for interrogation. (Also see Al Qaeda in Haditha: The Battle the Media Ignored.) On October 7, 2005, CNN reported, “The city itself is almost literally an improvised explosive device (IED) field.” Indeed. The company that K Co 3/1 replaced the previous month sustained the highest percentage of casualties of the entire Iraq War: 26 Lima Company 3/25 Marines were dead and another 32 had been wounded. (Also see The Battle of Haditha.)

Ambush on Route Chestnut

An eerie quiet was broken at 7:15 a.m. on November 19. 2005. A white car carrying 5 military-aged men (MAMs) had approached SSgt Wuterich’s 4-Humvee resupply convoy from ahead and been waived to give way by LCpl Justin Sharratt who was manning his M240G Machine Gun in the lead Humvee’s turret. The white car stopped off to the side, inside the squad’s security perimeter, just as a buried IED was set off beneath the last Humvee in the convoy, splitting the vehicle and LCpl Miguel “TJ” Terrazas in half, and wounding Lance Corporals James Crossan and Salvador Guzman. The blast initiated an ambush and the squad immediately came under small arms fire. Every Marine’s weapon was not immediately turned on the white car — the five men inside it were not immediately turned into goo. SSgt Wuterich had to rapidly make a threat assessment, secure the squad’s defensive perimeter, suppress enemy fires, and defend his Marines caught in that kill zone.

The enemy’s complex attack would soon embroil all of Kilo Company, leave 1 Marine dead, and wound 10 Marines and 1 Navy Corpsman.

SSgt Wuterich had spotted the white car stopped ahead of him. He followed his training. First he radioed higher HQs of the attack, reported his casualties, and requested that the QFR respond to his location. [Correction made January 17, 2012: As Wuterich was driving, LCpl Graviss actually radioed-in the initial report and he overheard it. Wuterich radioed-in a second report soon after the encounter with the white car.] He dismounted the 3rd Humvee and approached the white car from the east with his M-16 at the ready.

Wuterich has previously stated that when he was still more than 30 meters away, three MAMs dismounted to the south from the passenger side, and the other two dismounted to the north, from the driver’s side, moved west away from him, and then turned south around the back of the white car. He saw that Sgt Dela Cruz was north across the road, heard him shouting commands at the five, and the men were not complying. A chest-high dirt pile was but a few feet south of them and in the direction the five were moving.

LCpl Tatum, Cpl Hector Salinas, and Navy Corpsman HN1 Brian Whitt rushed from their Humvees, under enemy fire, to the stricken vehicle.

Salinas testified Thursday that as he passed close behind Dela Cruz, he saw him aiming his M-16 at the five MAMs, and heard him shouting “Stop! Stop!” at them in Arabic. As Nat Helms reported, Dela Cruz’s testimony Wednesday seemed incredible:

It is either the fourth or fifth version of his observations since he failed a polygraph, and then elected to accept immunity from prosecution, counting the two versions he presented at trial today. … “They were standing there looking around, some with their hands in the air and some behind their heads,” Dela Cruz said while demonstrating the decedent’s movements. “One of the Iraqis in the middle dropped, sir. Then they were falling back behind the car. I looked over at Sgt. Wuterich – Sergeant Wuterich was kneeling in a firing position, sir. I looked back at the Iraqis and I didn’t see [any] more of them.”

Why would Dela Cruz have shouted “Stop! Stop!” in Arabic at the five if, “They were standing there looking around?”

Those Marines had been trained on defending against VBIEDs and reminded the night before on how to identify them on the battlefield. If they perceived a vehicle and those inside it as threats, they were to engage the occupants before the device could be set off and from a distance.

SSgt Wuterich perceived a threat and engaged it by fire.

Part II: The counter-attack upon houses 1 and 2.

Jury seated in last ‘Haditha’ Marine trial

The North County Times reported on Friday’s progress in the court-martial of the last U.S. Marine to stand trial in connection with the November 19, 2005 civilian deaths in Haditha, Iraq:

An eight-member jury was seated at Camp Pendleton on Friday to decide the fate of a staff sergeant charged with war crimes in the deaths of 24 Iraqi civilians during the height of the conflict.

The jury of four officers and four enlisted men will hear opening statements on Monday in the trial of 31-year-old Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich.

Wuterich is accused of being responsible for 19 of the 24 Iraqi deaths that came after his Kilo Company squad from the base’s 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, searched for the people responsible for a roadside bombing that killed one Marine and injured two others on Nov. 19, 2005, in the city of Haditha.

Wuterich has pleaded not guilty to charges of manslaughter, assault and dereliction of duty for failing to follow the rules of engagement stemming from the more than 6-year-old incident. He faces a prison sentence of up to 150 years if convicted of all the charges.

Controversy surrounding the prosecution and its unpopularity within the ranks of the Marine Corps was evident at the close of Friday’s proceedings when the lead prosecutor, Maj. Nicholas Gannon, told the military judge that all his witnesses were reluctant to aid the government.

“I can’t think of a single witness that I would say is desirable of being helpful to the United States,” Gannon said.

See Defend Our Marines for reports by Nat Helms who is attending the trial.

Attorneys in military cases are allowed to request the removal of potential jurors — called “panelists” in military law — for cause or simply because they don’t like what the panel candidates had to say. The Colonel, deemed too close to the convening authority, a Master Gunnery Sergeant who provoked somebody’s ire, and a Gunnery Sergeant who mentioned Hiroshima and Haditha in the same breath were stricken from the roles after the prosecutors and defense attorneys jousted over their continued presence.

During the voir dire proceeding, almost all of the Marines questioned by Sullivan and Faraj stumbled through explanations of what the Rules of Engagement said in November 2005, offering vague impressions of how they were changed after former Marine Commandant General Michael W. Hagee visited Iraq in 2006 following the Haditha fiasco. The potential panelists had an equally tough time explaining when and why escalation of force can be implemented, and what to do when apparent non-combatants find themselves on the firing line. Each of those questions represent fundamental building blocks the panelists must consider when deciding the guilt or innocence of Wuterich, a rookie squad leader who commanded the Marines that counter-attacked their ambushers.