The Iraqi town of Haditha will now forever be linked with the blood and terror of the US occupation. For many it will be Iraq’s equivalent of Vietnam’s My Lai, a symbol of the violence of imperialism.
Before the war the sleepy town of 70,000 on the banks of the River Euphrates was known mainly for its date growing.
Now it is known for a massacre. And that massacre has underlined the much wider process of invasion, and the urgent necessity for every one of the US and British troops to leave now.
At 7.15am on 19 November 2005, a roadside bomb in Haditha killed a 20 year old US Marine, Miguel Terrazas.
A statement released by the US department of defence said 24 civilians were also killed in the blast.
It was portrayed as another resistance operation that went wrong.
But a few days after the incident the Association of Sunni Scholars held a press conference in Baghdad where they challenged the official version of events. They revealed that US troops had massacred two families and a group of men in a taxi in revenge for the death of the soldier.
The US army dismissed the claims as “Al Qaida propaganda”, and stuck to the story that the civilians had been killed by the roadside bomb. Later the story was changed to say that the victims were caught in crossfire between Marines and insurgents.
A team of military investigators made up of reservists from the US police took photographs of the scene and the bodies, but did not charge any soldiers.
They did not know that local journalist Taher Thabet had filmed the evidence and handed the footage over to a human rights group, who passed it to Time magazine.
Four months after the massacre Time published the story and the military had to reopen its investigation.
The truth began to emerge.
Witnesses described how US soldiers had dragged five men from a taxi and executed them. Soldiers belonging to the 3rd Battalion, 1st Regiment, 1st Marine Division, then moved from one house to another, seizing the families and killing them as they lay helpless.
This was not just a frenzied reaction. It took the Marines five hours to commit their crimes.
One survivor, a young girl, described long silences between killings. A 77 year old in a wheelchair was shot in the chest and abdomen as he clutched a copy of the Koran.
A young boy was fatally wounded and died after several hours as his sister cowered under the bed.
A Marine who was part of the “clean up crew” told the Los Angeles Times that the victims “ranged from little babies to adult males and females”.
“I’ll never be able to get that out of my head. I can still smell the blood,” he added.
A neighbour said that after the killings a US official offered the survivors $2,500 in compensation, but the families refused to take the money.
After Time magazine broke the story the Marines admitted they had photographic evidence that showed the victims had been killed “execution style”.
As with the Abu Ghraib scandal, there was an attempt to portray the massacre as the result of a breakdown in discipline brought on by the stress of war.
But this was not an isolated incident. The same Marine battalion involved in the Haditha massacre spearheaded the assault on western Fallujah in November 2004.
Kevin Sites, a journalist for NBC embedded in the battalion, reported that during the battle soldiers were ordered to “kill everything”.
In February 2005 Socialist Worker published images and testimonies of survivors who described the deliberate massacre of civilians in the area.
In one incident survivors were ordered into a square in the centre of the city where they were mowed down by US soldiers and their Iraqi allies.
The same battalion is also accused of firing white phosphorus shells in the assault on the beleaguered city.
Another infamous incident also involved the same battalion. During fighting in Fallujah, Marines discovered wounded and dying resistance fighters sheltering in a mosque.
The men had earlier been disarmed by another patrol of soldiers. As the camera rolled, one marine stepped up to a wounded man and shot him dead.
The killing in the mosque was broadcast around the world, but neither the soldier nor his superiors were charged.
The Haditha massacre is not only about the crimes of a set of individuals or of one unit. It is an example of the systematic and much greater crime of Bush and Blair’s war.
In the months after the fall of Baghdad, the US touted Haditha as a success story. The US army had rebuilt a vital power station at the Haditha dam and felt confident enough to hand over security to a small contingent of Azerbaijani troops.
But in the summer of 2003 US troops rounded up over 700 young men in a mass sweep. The raids fuelled growing anger at the occupation. By April 2004, Haditha joined the revolt across Iraq.
The US responded by isolating the town, blowing up most of its bridges and inserting teams of snipers. Later they shipped in Iraqi death squads. The town rose in rebellion, driving out US troops and the local authorities imposed by the occupation.
In the summer of 2005 Haditha’s hospital was destroyed in fighting. The cousin of Iraq’s ambassador to Washington was shot dead by US troops during a raid on his house.
One resident told the Arabic Al-Quds newspaper that US troops were threatening to kill civilians if attacks by the resistance did not stop. On 19 November US soldiers turned those threats into reality.
It shows how appalling the situation is today that the Haditha massacre hardly features in Iraqi news. For Iraqis the slaughter at Haditha is but one of a series of mass killings.
Last month US troops opened fire on two families driving through the northern city of Mosul. Soldiers then fired on locals who rushed to help the survivors, a wounded girl and an elderly lady.
On 15 May US troops raided a village near al-Latifiyah, 20 miles south of Baghdad, and cut down 25 civilians who fled into a field. In August 2005, 23 worshippers were gunned down by a US tank gunner as they left Friday prayers in a Ramadi mosque. Nine of the victims were children.
In March this year, 37 Shia Muslim worshipers were executed under the orders of a US officer as they gathered for prayers in a Baghdad mosque.
The British and US troops must get out now. Every day they stay another Haditha threatens.
Stop the War conference
With Craig Murray, Tony Benn, George Galloway MP, Caroline Lucas MEP, Rose Gentle, Elaheh Rostami Povey (Action Iran), Yvonne Ridley (Islam Channel), Kate Hudson (CND), Jeremy Corbyn MP, Sabah Jawad (Iraqi Democrats), Explo Nani Kofi (African Liberation Support Group), Salma Yaqoob (Respect).
Saturday 10 June, Friends House, Euston Road, London WC1
For infomation phone 020 7278 6694 or go to www.stopwar.org.uk