Paul von Zielbauer has filed 34 stories on the alleged killings by marines of two dozen Iraqi civilians in Haditha since the incident first came to light in July 2006. His story on Saturday may be one of the last, as the murder charges against the marines are falling apart: "The Erosion of a Murder Case Against Marines in the Killing of 24 Civilians." One would never have guessed that outcome based on von Zielbauer's previous pieces, which bought into the assumption thatthe marines had "massacred" 24 Iraqi civilians.
January 7: "An American government report on the killing of 24 Iraqis, including several women and children, by marines in the village of Haditha in 2005 provides new details of how the shootings unfolded and supports allegations by prosecutors that a few marines illegally killed civilians, government officials said yesterday."
April 20: "After it became clear last year that several marines had killed 24 civilians in Haditha, Iraq, following an attack on their convoy of Humvees, the Marine Corps, which had initially played down the massacre, began an offensive of a different kind."
May 6: "Recently unclassified documents suggest that senior officers viewed the killings of 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha in late 2005 as a potential public relations problem that could fuel insurgent propaganda against the American military, leading investigators to question whether the officers' immediate response had been intentionally misleading."
But were all 24 Iraqis merely innocent "civilians"? Interestingly, Zielbauer dropped the word "civilians" in his last four accounts of the trial as the murder casecollapsed (although Saturday's headline retained the word).
On Saturday, Zielbauer sounded almost reluctant that Haditha won't go down in liberal history like the My Lai massacre:
"Last year, when accounts of the killing of 24 Iraqis in Haditha by a group of marines came to light, it seemed that the Iraq war had produced its defining atrocity, just as the conflict in Vietnam had spawned the My Lai massacre a generation ago."
Helped in no small measure by slanted coverage in the Times.
"But on Thursday, a senior military investigator recommended dropping murder charges against the ranking enlisted marine accused in the 2005 killings, just as he had done earlier in the cases of two other marines charged in the case. The recommendation may well have ended prosecutors' chances of winning any murder convictions in the killings of the apparently unarmed men, women and children.
"In the recent case, against Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich, the investigator recommended that he be charged with negligent homicide if the case moved ahead to court-martial. In the other two cases, the investigator recommended dropping all charges.
"Experts in military justice say the Haditha prosecutions were compromised by several factors having to do with the quality of the evidence, including a delayed investigation and the decision to conduct hearings in the United States, far from the scene of the killings and possible Iraqi witnesses.
"The cases also reflect the particular views of Lt. Col. Paul J. Ware, who presided over the hearings and concluded that all three cases lacked sufficient evidence. He made clear in his recommendations to the commander who ultimately decides the cases that he felt that the killings should be considered in context - that of a war zone where the enemy ruthlessly employed civilians as cover.
"Perhaps nothing handicapped military prosecutors more than the delay in investigating the killings, on Nov. 19, 2005, because battalion officers initially decided the case did not require an inquiry. The attack began after a roadside bombing of the marines' convoy killed a comrade; led by Sergeant Wuterich, a group of marines then killed 24 people over several hours. Nineteen of the 24 were killed in their homes.
Bruce Kesler has followed the case from the beginning.
A side note: The Times' Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse (who should know better, given her beat) relayed reckless charges about Haditha in her notorious rant at a Harvard alumni gathering in 2006, calling Haditha one of several "law-free zones" around the world created by the Bush administration.
"Our government had turned its energy and attention away from upholding the rule of law and toward creating law-free zones at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Haditha, and other places around the world. And let's not forget the sustained assault on women's reproductive freedom and the hijacking of public policy by religious fundamentalism."
Don't wait for an apology from Greenhouse.