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Monday, June 05, 2006

The Haji Problem

Haji's or humans?

US confronts brutal culture among its finest sons

In the wake of the Haditha massacre come further allegations of outlaw killings in Iraq. They add to growing unease about US military culture that fails to distinguish civilian from insurgent

Paul Harris in New York, Peter Beaumont in London, and Mohammed al-Ubeidy in Baghdad
Sunday June 4, 2006
The Observer

American veterans of the war in Iraq have described a culture of casual violence, revenge and prejudice against Iraqi civilians that has made the killing of innocent bystanders a common occurrence.

The US military is now involved in at least three separate investigations into its own soldiers' conduct in Iraq that may illegally have led to the deaths of Iraqi civilians. It is widely expected that more incidents will be uncovered. The most serious is the alleged massacre of 24 civilians in the Sunni town of Haditha by a unit of marines. The victims included women and children who were shot after a roadside bomb hit a convoy and killed a US soldier.

Last week it was revealed that two more incidents have also been under investigation. The first is the death of 11 Iraqis during an American raid near Balad in March. The dead included five children. The second inquiry involves seven US marines and a sailor in the death of an Iraqi civilian near Baghdad in April. It is believed the man was dragged from his home and shot before an AK-47 and a shovel were placed next to his body to make it look like he was an insurgent.

Some American veterans have expressed little surprise at the latest revelations. 'I don't doubt for one moment that these things happened. They are widespread. This is the norm. These are not the exceptions,' said Camilo Mejia, a US infantry veteran who served briefly in the Haditha area in 2003.

American veterans have told The Observer of a military culture that places little practical emphasis on avoiding civilian casualties in the heat of battle, although they also point out the huge problems of urban fighting against a tough enemy that often hides within the civilian Iraqi community.

'In these circumstances you would be surprised at how any normal human being can see their morals degenerate so they can do these things,' said Garrett Reppenhagen, a former US sniper.

Mejia, who has served time in jail for refusing to return to Iraq for a second tour of duty, said there was widespread prejudice against Iraqis in his unit, and that Iraqis were routinely referred to as 'Hajis' in the same way that local people during the Vietnam war were called 'gooks' or 'Charlie'.

'We dehumanise the enemy under these circumstances,' said Mejia. 'They called them gooks in Vietnam and we called them Hajis in Iraq.'

Mejia described an incident in Ramadi when his unit was manning a roadblock near a mosque. When one car refused to stop, US soldiers opened fire on it. Then the American unit came under fire from elsewhere. In the resulting firefight, however, no insurgents were killed while seven Iraqi civilians stuck at the roadblock died. No weapons were found in the car that had refused to stop. 'There was no sense in it. There was no basic humanity. They were all civilians and we didn't kill any insurgents,' Mejia said.

Some have tried to defend the killings by pointing to the stress that US soldiers - many of whom are on their second or third tour of duty - are under. But it is clear that there are other, deeper problems within the US military that point to a widespread failure of command.

At the heart of the issue is a culture of violence against Iraqi civilians that has been present in large measure since the moment US forces crossed the border into Iraq - an inability and unwillingness to distinguish between civilians and combatants that as three years have passed has been transformed, for some, into something more deliberate.

From the shootings of civilians in Nasiriya by marines during the US advance to similar shootings by the Third Infantry Division on the outskirts of Baghdad during the so-called 'Thunder Run' into the city, the same pattern has reasserted itself. Indeed, within weeks of the fall of Saddam's regime it expressed itself in the moment that many now see as the starting point of the insurgency: the firing by US paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division into a noisy demonstration in Falluja.


Mejia believes the problem is a systemic one. He points out that both the Abu Ghraib scandal and the Haditha massacre have only come to light because either locals or US soldiers took photographs of the crimes or their aftermath. If left to the army alone, they would never have been uncovered.

'These things are just the ones we know about. Just think about how much else has gone that we don't know about. Civilians are dying there almost every day,' he said.
Let's cut to the chase. The US Army tolerated open racism between US troops and the Iraqi civilians we were supposedly liberating. And this was a belief from the CENTCOM staff down to the field. The military actively expected to be treated like the US entering Holland in 1944, with people dancing in the streets. Instead, it started with guerilla war and never ended. The sense of bewilderment and disappointment quickly turned to rage.

And the introduction of the National Guard made it worse. The NG was designed to fight in Europe after the Group of Soviet Forces Germany crashed through the inter-German frontier. Not for year after year of guerrilla warfare in the streets of Iraq. The Marines have an even worse situation by placing combat units in the reserve and they get sent to Iraq. Which is why Lima Company 3/25 took such a beating. The central Ohio-based unit was tossed into heavy combat and as a result, a few towns in Ohio lost 25 men.

The problem is that the NG and reserve units were not psychologically equipped for heavy combat for a year, Marine tours are seven months. And that is where the racism exploded. Catch the documentary series Off to War on Discovery Times Channel, and you will see nice young men develop an abiding hatred for Iraqis. They look at Iraq and wonder where the Taco Bells are, why the people are so backwards.

And the virus spreads to the regulars. The hatred and distrust of Iraqis become ingrained in barracks room talk and in the bars, then in the squad bay and Hummer. The question becomes are they Hajis or humans. No, they shouldn't ask that question, but they do and no one stops them. What was sold as liberation becomes about survival, and Iraqis are number two on the list. They are the obsticle to returning home.

But let's remember one thing. The vast majority of combat troops do not murder children in a rage or plant evidence. They do their jobs, hate in silence and go home. They have enough to live with just killing armed men in combat. Any one defending this is objectively pro-child murder.

posted by Steve @ 2:15:00 AM

2:15:00 AM

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