BAGHDAD, Iraq – Some Iraqis said Thursday that U.S. military plans to charge Marines in the shooting deaths of 24 Iraqi civilians were a sham, and that the American troops should face justice in Iraq.
As many as eight Marines could be charged in the killings, which took place on Nov. 19, 2005, in the Iraqi town of Haditha, northwest of Baghdad. In terms of the number slain, the expected U.S. criminal case is the biggest to emerge from the war.
"The trial they are talking about is fake," said Naji al-Ani, a 36-year-old laborer, by telephone from Haditha. "The American troops should be brought here, in front of an Iraqi court. They committed a horrible crime against innocents."
Other residents of Haditha agreed, saying they believed the servicemen were guilty and should face the death penalty -- but would not face justice in the U.S.
"Are they terrorists or are they fighting terrorism?" asked Jamal al-Obaidi, a 40-year-old teacher. "The trial is not fair because it is taking place in America. Executing them is the minimum penalty."
Dozens of U.S. troops who served in Iraq have been prosecuted, convicted and sentenced to jail for crimes against Iraqis. Four other Marines from Camp Pendleton are awaiting trial in a military court on charges they kidnapped and murdered an Iraqi man. Four of their comrades already have pleaded guilty to the crime and agreed to testify against them.
The Haditha shootings occurred after a roadside bomb struck a patrol, killing one Marine. In the aftermath of the blast, five Iraqi men were shot as they approached the scene in a taxi. Others -- including women and children -- died as Marines opened fire on a cluster of houses in the area.
The case focuses on motive. The question is whether the civilians were victims of wanton killing by troops angered by the death of a comrade, or people caught up in a hellish battle as the Marines fought to defend themselves from a perceived threat.
After the Haditha killings, a Time magazine story picked holes in the Marine Corps' account that 15 Iraqis died in a roadside bomb blast and Marines killed eight insurgents in an ensuing fire fight. Later reports put the number of dead Iraqis at 24.
None of the bodies was exhumed and collecting forensic evidence in a war zone is hard.
A spokesman for the Iraqi Defense Ministry said the Iraqi government supports the decision of the U.S. military to prosecute the troops.
"We respect and appreciate their interest in holding this trial," spokesman Mohammed al-Askari said.
But Dr. Jabir al-Jabiri, an Iraqi political analyst, said holding the trial in the United States violated Iraqi sovereignty.
"This is an insult to the Iraqi people," he said. "We hope the Iraqi judicial system and government can be independent enough to fulfill their duties in a proper way."
Karim al-Hayani, a 46-year-old Haditha resident, said he had a question for President Bush.
"I ask Bush: 'Is this the democracy that you promised to bring to the Iraqis?"' he said.