Friday, June 02, 2006

'Marines are good at killing. Nothing else. They like it' By Oliver Poole

In January, shortly before the first published reports emerged about US marines methodically gunning down men, women and children in the Iraqi town of Haditha, The Daily Telegraph spent time at the main camp of the battalion under investigation.

Rumours had spread that what happened on Nov 19 diverged from the official line that locals were killed by a roadside bomb.

None of the troops wanted to talk, but even a short stay with the men of the 3rd Bn 1st Marine Division in their camp located in Haditha Dam on the town's outskirts, made clear it was a place where institutional discipline had frayed and was even approaching breakdown.

Normally, American camps in Iraq are almost suburban, with their coffee shops and polite soldiers who idle away their rest hours playing computer games and discussing girls back home.

Haditha was shockingly different - a feral place where the marines hardly washed; a number had abandoned the official living quarters to set up separate encampments with signs ordering outsiders to keep out; and a daily routine punctured by the emergency alarm of the dam itself with its antiquated and crumbling machinery.

The dam is one of Iraq's largest hydroelectric stations. A US special operations unit had secured it during the invasion and American troops had been there ever since. Now they were spread across the dozen or so levels where Iraqi engineers once lived.

The lifts were smashed, the lighting provided only a half gloom. Inside, the grinding of the dam machinery made talking difficult. The place routinely stank of rotten eggs, a by-product apparently of the grease to keep the turbines running.

The day before my arrival one soldier had shot himself in the head with his M16. No one would discuss why.

The washing facilities were at the top and the main lavatories at the base. With about 800 steps between them, many did not bother to use the official facilities.

Instead, a number had moved into small encampments around the dam's entrances that resembled something from Lord of the Flies. Entering one, a marine was pulling apart planks of wood with his dirt-encrusted hands to feed a fire.

A skull and crossbones symbol had been etched on the entrance to the shack.

I was never allowed to interview a senior officer properly, unlike during every other stint with American forces. The only soldiers willing to speak at length were those from the small Azerbaijani contingent whose role was to marshal the band of Iraqi engineers who kept the machinery going into and out of the facility.

The US troops liked them. "They have looser rules of engagement," one said admiringly in a rare, snatched conversation.

It is not yet known where exactly the men responsible for the killing of the 24 civilians in Haditha were based. There was a handful of small, forward-operating bases in the town and surrounding area, with two dozen or so in each. If they were in these, it is highly unlikely their conditions were any better.

They would certainly also have shared the recent history of the battalion. It had undergone three tours in Iraq in two and a half years.

More than 30 of its members had died in the previous one, the majority when the unit led the major attack on Fallujah, then at the heart of the insurgency. Now they were in Haditha, one of the most dangerous settlements in Iraq, after only seven months away.

It is a place where six marines died in three days during the previous August and where in nearby Parwana 14 died shortly afterwards in the most deadly roadside bomb attack of the war.

At the dam there was one American civilian, an engineer sent out by the US government with instructions to keep the facility operational.

It was a difficult task. Each time there was a power cut the turbines stopped working, the water against the dam would start to build up and everybody knew that if the local engineers could not get the generators started in time it would collapse.

The American's job was not helped by the marines viewing his Iraqi workers as potential saboteurs. The troops he was quartered with terrified him, so much so that he would not let his name be quoted for fear of reprisal.

He was keeping a secret dossier of breaches he said he had witnessed, or learned of. He planned to present it to the authorities when he returned to the US.

"Marines are good at killing," he said. "Nothing else. They like it.