Monday’s observance of Memorial Day, the annual commemoration of U.S. soldiers who died in the service of their country, has taken place at a particularly difficult moment for both the U.S. armed forces and the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush.
While the traditions of small-town parades, barbecues, and family visits to the cemetery to plant flags along the grave markers of veterans were duly honored, the news from Iraq and Afghanistan where a total of some 150,000 U.S. troops are currently deployed was anything but upbeat.
While Monday’s fatal crash of a runaway military truck in Kabul sparked the worst outbreak of anti-U.S. demonstrations in the Afghan capital since the ouster of the Taliban in late 2001, dozens of people, including two British members of a CBS News television crew, were reported killed in the latest surge of gunfire and bomb attacks throughout Iraq.
The incident in Afghanistan, in which at least half a dozen people were reported killed some allegedly by U.S. troops in the rioting that followed the crash, underlined the degree to which foreign forces are increasingly resented. It also temporarily diverted attention to the unprecedented resurgence of Taliban forces in the country’s Pashtun belt, where a series of violent clashes have left several hundred dead over the past two weeks.
“Afghanistan is the sleeper crisis of this summer,” the head of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), John Hamre, told the Sunday New York Times in an analysis that described “some officials” here as worried that Washington “might become tied down in a prolonged battle as control slips away from the central government.”
Those concerns could well result in the reversal of an earlier decision to reduce by several thousand the roughly 20,000 U.S. troops deployed to Afghanistan and replace them with soldiers from other NATO countries, according to officials here.
In Iraq, where the new government headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is still struggling to gain consensus on who should head the all-important defense and interior ministries, the ongoing violence and intensified ethnic cleansing, particularly in Baghdad, are forcing a similar reassessment.
Plans to bring home at least 30,000 out of the 133,000 U.S. troops currently deployed there by the mid-term Congressional elections in November appear to have been put on hold, much to the chagrin of nervous Republican candidates who know that the unpopularity of both the war and of President Bush poses a serious threat to their electoral ambitions.
While the situations in both countries underline the doubtfulness of Bush’s pledges of “complete victory” most recently voiced Saturday at graduation at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in his “war on terror,” what makes this year’s Memorial Day particularly downbeat is the impending release of an official report on what almost certainly was a massacre of as many as two dozen unarmed Iraqis, including one five-month-old baby girl, carried out by U.S. Marines in Haditha, Iraq, last November.
First reported in March by Time magazine, the three- to five-hour killing spree, which is being widely compared to the bloodier 1968 My Lai massacre that helped turn public opinion decisively against the Vietnam War after it became public in late 1969, has reportedly been detailed to some lawmakers behind closed doors by senior military officers and Pentagon officials last week.
But major U.S. newspapers, including the Times and the Washington Post, have since provided accounts based on eyewitness testimony by residents of Haditha, an insurgent stronghold in al-Anbar province, as well as secondhand reports by lawmakers, notably ex-Marine veteran and Iraq War critic, Democratic Rep. John Murtha, about what they have been told.
The massacre was reportedly triggered by the bombing of a military convoy that resulted in the death of one Marine. A squad of Marines subsequently conducted a sweep of the neighborhood, first killing five men in a taxi, then invading two homes where they killed unarmed men, women and children, most at close range.
One congressional official described the killings to the Times as “methodical in nature,” and despite initial reports of the incident to the contrary, no indication that the Marines faced armed resistance or attack at any time during their sweep has emerged.
“This was not an immediate response to an attack,” another ex-Marine, Republican Rep. John Kline, also told the Times. “This would be an atrocity.”
Worse, as in My Lai, there appears to have been an attempt at covering up the incident, including planting evidence to indicate the presence of armed resistance and lying to military investigators. The initial descriptions of the killings as resulting from the original bombing and then a running battle between the Marines and insurgents also proved false.
The fact, however, that no serious investigation of the killings appears to have taken place until after the appearance of Time‘s report more than four months after the incident coupled with the military’s offer of $2,500 per victim to the surviving family members in compensation, a decision normally handled at senior levels has added to the impression that the Marines or the Pentagon or both had tried to prevent the massacre from coming to light.
These factors were cited by Murtha, whose ties to the uniformed military are considered particularly close and who first disclosed the preliminary results of the military’s investigation two weeks ago, as evidence of a cover-up.
“There has to have been a cover-up of this thing,” he said on a television interview Sunday. “No question about it,” he added, suggesting that it could go high up the chain of command. “How far up it went, I don’t know.”
Murtha also noted another pending case against a separate group of Marines who are accused of summarily executing an Iraqi man just last month near Fallujah and then trying to cover it up.
The Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, John Warner, announced Sunday that he would hold hearings on the incident, including the reaction of “senior officers in the Marine Corps.”
In the Haditha case, one battalion commander and two company commanders have reportedly been relieved of their posts, while several Marines who allegedly carried out the killings are being held in the brig at their home base at Fort Pendleton, Calif., pending the completion of the investigations. A dozen other Marines have also been implicated, according to published reports.
To Murtha, who has called for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq for the last six months, however, the incident and its aftermath are yet one more indication that the administration failed to anticipate an unconventional war in Iraq and train and equip U.S. troops adequately to cope with it.
(Inter Press Service)