Against the grisly background of unrelenting violence in Iraq, rumors that U.S. Marines had killed 24 civilians last November in the town Haditha shocked no one. It was not an especially large group of people, and Iraqis are already convinced that U.S. soldiers regularly kill unarmed civilians.
The recent news some six months later that U.S. military investigators are conducting a criminal investigation into Haditha didn't reassure them either.
At a press conference last week, military spokesman Maj. Gen. William Caldwell told Iraqi reporters, "the coalition does not and will not tolerate unethical or criminal behavior … any members found to have committed such violations will be held accountable."
But Iraqis have witnessed too many heavy-handed raids by U.S. troops, too many accidental shootings at checkpoints, or security operations gone tragically wrong to believe this wholesale.
To many of them, the Haditha investigation does not show that American justice is working as it should. Instead they see it as proof that American soldiers lie, and their superiors cover up for them.
By extension, it lends credence to all the mad rumors and horror stories about American abuse that run like wildfire around this frightened and frustrated country.
Sitting with some Iraqi colleagues recently, I heard the latest urban legend, which has surfaced since two lots of severed human heads turned up north of Baghdad last weekend.
Like all urban legends, it's not first hand. Someone's cousin's friend's brother had car trouble far from his home at dusk, and had to take shelter for the night at a construction company.
"In the middle of the night, he heard vehicles," said Riyad, who lives in the Shia area called Sadr City in Baghdad. "He peered through the window to see the owner of the company handing over several bags of severed head to U.S. forces who had come to collect 'their bounty.' "
There are people here who are willing to believe the Americans actually run death squads paid to cut off people's heads.
However, the man who actually shot the video in Haditha, Thaer Thabet, does not.
A middle-aged journalism student in Baghdad, he just happened to be visiting his mother in Haditha when the U.S. forces allegedly attacked houses in the neighborhoods. As soon as he was able to, he left his house and went to film the corpses of school friends, their parents and their children.
It was a wrenching ordeal, and there is no doubt in his mind that his unarmed neighbors were killed by bullets fired by U.S. Marines.
"But bad, cruel things happen in all wars," he told me. "I don't feel any hatred against the U.S. forces in general. I am sure that once the American people hear the facts, the American system will see justice done. The most important thing now is for us to stop blaming each other in Iraq — the Americans, the Shia, the Sunni — and identify common goals. Then work toward them"
Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, the man who swore to start a civil war in Iraq, is now dead. The new Iraqi Prime Minister has finally appointed Defense and Interior Ministers to his Cabinet — one Shia and one Sunni — so that for the first time responsibility for the Iraqi security forces is shared between the two factions. This is a good foundation for reconciliation in Iraq.
If it goes on to blossom in the weeks to come, it will be thanks to Iraqis like Thabet who choose to see the fallout from Haditha — not as evidence brutality and conspiracy, but as proof of justice.
By Elizabeth Palmer