BAGHDAD, Iraq – A lawyer who had several relatives among 24 Iraqis allegedly slain by U.S. Marines last fall and is representing kin of other victims complained in a videotape Saturday that American compensation paid to the families was inadequate.
Khaled Salem Rsayef also said U.S. officers accused him and other relatives of lying when they recounted the shootings in their first meeting with the military after the Nov. 19 deaths in the western town of Haditha. He did not say when they met.
In interviews taped Friday by an AP Television News cameraman, 9-year-old survivor Iman Walid Abdul-Hameed demanded that those responsible be executed.
"Because they hurt us, we want the Americans to be executed," Iman said, wearing a violet-colored striped shirt, matching pants and headband while sitting on a couch at a relative's home. Iman, the 9-year-old survivor, looked nervous during her interview. She was reluctant to speak to the cameraman at first, but was eventually persuaded by her relatives.
The girl lost her parents, a brother, grandparents and two uncles in the incident. Another brother, Abdul-Rahman, who was 6 at the time, and a sister, Asia, who was 5 months old, survived. Iman and Abdul-Rahman were slightly injured.
"We did not do anything to them," Iman said of the Marines who allegedly killed unarmed civilians after becoming enraged when a comrade died in a roadside bombing.
The deaths in Haditha and two other incidents involving allegations of wrongful killings have put the U.S. military on the defensive, drawing charges from Iraqis that American troops show little regard for the lives of innocent people.
U.S. authorities are investigating the killings in Haditha and another town, but on Saturday cleared U.S. troops of wrongdoing in the deaths of up to 13 Iraqis in a village north of Baghdad. Maj. Gen. William Caldwell said U.S. troops responded appropriately to an attack by insurgents during a raid in Ishaqi on March 15.
The director of Haditha General Hospital told AP Television News the 24 victims in that city included eight women and five children. Walid Abdul-Khaleq al-Obeidi said the victims mostly had chest and head wounds and were delivered to the hospital by Marines about 14 hours after witnesses said the last gunshot was heard at the death scene.
One body was charred, al-Obeidi added. That was believed to be Iman's father, Walid Abdul-Hameed, who witnesses said was burned to death after a grenade was thrown into his room.
Rsayef, the lawyer, said that during the first meeting between families of the Haditha victims and U.S. military officers, the Americans told the families that the 24 deaths were caused by the roadside bomb and by "terrorists."
"We had a heated argument," he said.
He said the U.S. officers also said during the meeting that they had no objection to TV news teams visiting the Euphrates River town to report on the deaths.
"In reality, they did not make good on their promises and sealed off the town for a month after the shootings," said Rsayef, who had a brother and sister-in-law, an uncle, an aunt and several cousins in the killings.
Despite blaming insurgents for the killings, the U.S. military gave the families $2,500 for each person killed in the incident about a month later, except for four brothers, all of fighting age, he said.
"When I received the compensation money, I found out that it was $2,500 for each victim," Rsayef said. "I told them that it's a small sum that does not match the magnitude of the disaster."
He noted that Libya's government paid millions of dollars in compensation to the families of the Lockerbie airline bombing victims. "Is American blood worth more than Iraqi blood?" he asked.
In an off-camera conversation with the cameraman, Iman, the 9-year-old survivor, told of hiding under a bed for hours after the shootings. She said Marines finally found her and initially took her for dead when they pulled her out.
The Marines later flew her and her brother Abdul-Rahman to a nearby hospital for treatment of their minor wounds. They were later moved to a Baghdad hospital.
According to U.S. lawmakers briefed by Pentagon officials, the deaths followed the killing of a U.S. Marine by a roadside bomb aimed at a military convoy the morning of Nov. 19. Angry Marines stormed nearby homes, killing occupants as well as the passengers of a taxi that arrived at the scene, the lawmakers said.
In addition to the Haditha case, U.S. authorities are investigating seven Marines and a Navy medic for possible murder, kidnapping and conspiracy charges in the April 26 shooting death of an Iraqi man in Hamandiya.
On Thursday, Iraq said it was launching its own probe into the Haditha killings, with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sharply criticizing the conduct of U.S. troops in Iraq.
Al-Maliki's comments were unusually harsh, suggesting he might be using the incident to bolster his image as a national unity leader at a time of rising sectarian tensions.
Al-Maliki is a Shiite, while the Haditha victims were Sunni Arabs, the minority that is the backbone of the insurgency against Iraq's U.S.-backed Shiite-dominated government.
An adviser to al-Maliki, Adnan al-Kazimi, denied Saturday that the announcement was a public relations exercise, saying an Iraqi investigation into the killings was popular among all Iraqis.
Al-Maliki will announce the makeup and mandate of the investigating committee in the next few days, al-Kazimi told The Associated Press. It will be made up of officials from the ministries of defense, interior and human rights and will report directly to al-Maliki, he said.
The findings of U.S. investigations into the killings are to be made available to the Iraqi government, with only the parts pertaining to security of U.S. forces withheld, he said.
Even with the findings of the U.S. investigations yet to be released, the Haditha incident has the potential to further undermine popular support for the Iraq war in the United States and tarnish the reputation of the Marines Corps.
The shootings also have underlined the immense pressure on U.S. troops in Iraq operate. They are often isolated from Iraqis by language and culture, are away from their families for months at a time, and are fighting a phantom enemy with little sympathy or help from civilians.
Many Iraqis, on their part, see the Americans and other foreign troops as occupiers who are after the country's oil wealth and accuse them of having little regard for their lives.
Caldwell, the general who is spokesman for the U.S.-led multinational forces in Iraq, said Saturday that allegations that troops are using undue force are a blow to the credibility of the coalition.
"The behavior of our forces is a key component in the overall success of our mission," he told Arab journalists. "The credibility of our coalition forces is too valuable a commodity to squander needlessly. Every incident and allegation, no matter how small, strikes a blow against that credibility."