John Dickerson and Dahlia Lithwick / Slate & Aaron Glantz With Alaa Hassan / Inter Press Service – 2006-06-06 23:51:13
Home Court Advantage
John Dickerson and Dahlia Lithwick / Slate
(June 2, 2006) — American Marines have been accused of massacring 24 civilians in the Euphrates River farming town of Haditha last fall to avenge the deaths of some of their own. As the story spreads, outrage at American double standards is once again building around the world and in Iraq. So, here’s an idea: Let’s let the Iraqis put the Americans alleged to have committed these crimes on trial.
The United States wants to encourage the fledgling Iraqi institution of democracy, right? That’s why we wanted Saddam tried in Iraq, and through the Iraqi judicial system?both to build up its legitimacy and to give Iraqis the sense of ownership that comes with having control over the legal process. Why, then, shouldn’t we also turn over our own soldiers who were involved in either the Haditha massacre or any of the other possible massacres for trial under the Iraqi justice system?
Doing this would probably be politically idiotic, and maybe even legally impossible. But it isn’t without legal precedent. And given the fragility of the new Iraqi government, and the American government’s claims about its legitimacy, this vote of confidence would make a powerful political and diplomatic statement. President Bush claimed a week ago that, despite Abu Ghraib, the United States and Iraq “have now reached a turning point in the struggle between freedom and terror.” Wouldn’t permitting Iraqis to try the offenders in their own courts this time go a long way to backing up that claim?
So far, no one in Iraq is calling for any of our troops to be turned over, but the rhetoric is escalating. Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has accused the US military of habitual attacks: “They crush them with their vehicles and kill them just on suspicion,” he said of the US soldiers.
Karen Hughes can try all the gambits she wants at the State Department to put a kind face on America in the Arab world, but it’s in moments like this one that the United States has a chance to reverse the impression it has created in the Middle East: that we take “moral” stands only when it suits our own interests.
Iraqis are skeptical about American justice and we’ve hardly given them much cause for confidence. As the neighbors of some of those massacred at Haditha recently told Time, the light sentences meted out for Abu Ghraib?and only to the lowest-ranking offenders?convinced them that American military justice is largely about whitewashing the truth and protecting one’s own.
As it happens, there is some legal precedent for such a move: In July 2001, US officials turned over an American serviceman to face trial in a foreign court for crimes committed in a foreign land.
When Staff Sgt. Timothy Woodland was accused of raping a Japanese woman, he was tried in the Japanese judicial system. In that case, US officials put the strength of US-Japanese relations ahead of military and legal constraints. Woodland was handed over despite the express wording of a US-Japan agreement providing that US commanders do not have to relinquish troops until they are indicted.
Now, Iraq is not Japan, although President Bush never tires of using the occupation of Japan after World War II as a model for the democratic development of Iraq. And we were obviously not engaged in open hostilities on Japanese soil when the incident occurred, nor is there any way to justify a rape as part of a military action.
But the object in both cases is the same: Whatever legal barriers existed were deemed less urgent than the political and diplomatic message sent. The idea that we can bolster a shaky trust by subjecting Americans to the criminal justice system of an ally applies in this case as well.
Like the Status of Forces Agreement that governs US-Japanese relations, there is certainly a formal legal bar to trying the Haditha defendants in Iraqi court: CPA Order 17, issued in the summer of 2003 by Paul Bremer, expressly states that US military and civilian governmental personnel, as well as US contractors, are exempt from the Iraqi legal process.
That order might need to be waived for the soldiers who committed the alleged atrocities against the men and women of Haditha. But as a diplomatic matter, the mere presence of that order is an insult to Iraqis: It calls out the message that we can invade their country, break their laws, and remain wholly immune from their criminal consequences.
The administration also has an opportunity to legitimize the Iraqi police force, which has already been conducting its own investigations into these alleged atrocities. The US government has been anxious to strengthen the Iraqi police as a precondition for withdrawing US troops. What better way than to give them moral authority with the Iraqi people than by showing them enforcing laws that apply to more than just Iraqis?
The larger legal anxiety about subjecting American soldiers to foreign law mirrors the concern at the root of the United States’ refusal to join the International Criminal Court. We like the idea of spreading justice everywhere around the world, but after we spread it, we trust only our own courts to impose it. We balk at the prospect of American troops being subject to anything but American justice, because protecting our national security interests sometimes means doing unjust things like killing civilians unintentionally.
So the US compromise is to institutionalize hypocrisy: We want everyone to emulate our courts system, but we insist that nothing but our own law is fair when it comes to US soldiers?even when we are intervening around the world to foster American-style democratic institutions where the law treats all citizens fairly.
While fairness and diplomatic relations may demand a trial, the prospects for such a volatile process taking place in the wobbly Iraqi system might overload it. But before we dismiss such a trial as a circus, or show trial, we might remember that we can’t stop circus trials from taking place right here in the United States. Certainly this notion is fraught with the possibility of missteps: What if a trial went forward and some of the soldiers were found innocent? Wouldn’t that send rioters into the streets claiming the government was just a tool in the hands of the United States?
But we either believe in Iraqi institutions or we don’t. If something public and symbolic and substantive isn’t done to bring the Iraqi officials into this process of trying the culprits in the massacre, our project there is hopeless. So, if an all-out handover is impossible, perhaps we get to the bottom of the crime together.
A joint US-Iraqi investigative commission under the watch of the United Nations or the International Red Cross would be a start. The United States should also allow television coverage of whatever courts-martial result. That would at least offer Iraqis some evidence that justice was being done in this specific case, and that the institutions the Americans have been promoting around the globe are capable of being fair and equitable.
Bush has often said that through tragedy he sees opportunity, most notably after Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina. Haditha was a tragedy. The president now has an opportunity to show the world he believes not all justice comes wrapped in an American flag.
John Dickerson is Slate’s chief political correspondent. Dahlia Lithwick is a Slate senior editor.
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‘US Military Hides Many More Hadithas’
Aaron Glantz With Alaa Hassan / Inter Press Service
BAGHDAD (June 7, 2006) — An Iraqi doctor who was in Haditha during a deadly US raid last year says there are many more stories like that in Haditha that are yet untold.
The Pentagon admitted last week that U.S. Marines killed 24 civilians ? including a 66-year-old woman and a 4-year-old boy ? in the western Iraqi town last November. Before that, the military had maintained the civilians were killed by a roadside bomb.
“There are many, many, many cases like Haditha that are still undercover and need to be highlighted in Iraq,” Dr. Salam Ishmael, projects manager with the organization Doctors for Iraq and former chief of the junior doctors in Baghdad’s Medical City Hospital, told IPS.
In Haditha itself, he said, the U.S. military cut electricity and water to the entire city, attacked the hospital, and burned the pharmacy.
“The hospital has been attacked three times. In November 2005, the hospital was occupied by the American and Iraqi Army for seven days, which is a severe breach of the Geneva Conventions,” he said.
“In one of these attacks, the U.S. soldiers used live ammunition inside the hospital. They handcuffed all the doctors and destroyed the entire contents of the medical storage. It ended with the killing of one of the patients in his bed.”
The Iraqi Red Crescent reported at the time that nearly 1,000 families had been forced to flee their homes in Haditha following the launch of the U.S.-led military operation.
The Pentagon has responded to allegations of a massacre at Haditha by withdrawing the concerned soldiers from Iraq and investigating them for criminal misconduct. Authorities also say they will launch a new round of “ethical training” for American troops before they are sent overseas.
Joseph Hatcher served in the western Iraqi town of Dawr from February 2004 until March last year. He said his cultural training before deployment consisted of a three-hour class and a pamphlet he was given.
“It’s just here’s where you are on a map, because you’d be surprised how many people don’t know that,” Hatcher told IPS. “The only language training we received was a handout flip book type flyer which was how to say things like ‘go down on your hands and knees’ and ‘don’t resist.’ We didn’t learn how to make any kind of conversation.”
During his time in Iraq, Hatcher took part in many house-to-house raids similar to the one in Haditha. He said none of the members of his unit spoke Arabic, and usually they went in without a translator.
“We would use very little language at all in house raids,” he said. “You point a barrel of a gun at somebody and pull them to the ground. It’s fairly standard. There’s no way to know if you’re getting anyone of value. You just arbitrarily raid an entire block.”
Salam al-Amidi worked as translator for the U.S. military in the northern city of Mosul, which has been controlled by insurgents for over a year. He said he was the only translator for more than 5,000 U.S. troops.
He said the U.S. military relies mostly on paid informants in deciding which houses to raid.
“Maybe that person wanted revenge on that family and came and told us that he saw someone selling weapons. We would just go to that house at three in the morning, we’d break the door, and break everything in the house.”
The Washington Post reported Monday that Marines went to the home of a 52-year-old disabled Iraqi, took him outside, and shot him four times in the face. Like the killings in Haditha, the involved Marines are being investigated. All eight have been removed from Iraq and are being held at Camp Pendleton in California.
Increasingly, though, politicians are arguing that military justice is not enough.
“The test will be whether the leadership in the Department of Defense and the administration does not try to confine these incidents in small compartments but looks to see if this is part of a large systemic problem,” Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island said on Fox News Sunday.