Marine says visibilty at Haditha house was poor and the action was quick

San Diego Union-Tribune:

Lance Cpl. Stephen Tatum didn't find out until later that he had been shooting at women and children inside two Iraqi houses within minutes of a roadside bomb attack that killed a fellow Marine two years ago, he told a courtroom yesterday at Camp Pendleton.

Tatum's voice broke as he described the smoke and darkness in the two houses in Haditha on Nov. 19, 2005. He gave the first public account of his role in the killing spree, which left 24 unarmed Iraqis dead. His account was part of a short, unsworn statement to the court during his pretrial hearing.

Tatum said he heard rifle fire coming from the direction of a nearby house, referred to in court as “House 1.” He said his platoon sergeant, Frank Wuterich, told him the house “was hostile” and then led Tatum and two other Marines inside.

After hearing a noise that sounded like the cocking of a rifle, Tatum said, he and a second Marine each hurled grenades into a living room where, it turned out, nine members of an Iraqi family had taken refuge. Then Tatum stepped around a corner and opened fire with his M-16.

“Visibility was horrible. It was dark and dusty,” he said. “I really couldn't make out much more than targets.”

Believing someone had escaped to a house next door, Tatum said, the four Marines ran over to clear it. One Marine fired through the kitchen door of what the investigators called “House 2,” killing a man on the other side. Tatum tossed a grenade into what turned out to be an empty bathroom. Then, hearing Wuterich shooting in a darkened bedroom, Tatum stepped in and fired as well.

Only later, Tatum said, did he learn that women and children were inside. Six people died.

“The whole engagement took maybe five, six seconds,” Tatum said haltingly. “I don't know if any of my rounds impacted. I know I'm not comfortable with the fact that I might have shot a child. That's a burden I'll have to bear.”

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A presentation in court yesterday involved a PowerPoint slide show on the rules of engagement that Marines saw before they left for Iraq. Two sample scenarios said Marines are justified in shooting if attacked with gunfire from a nearby house or if suspects try to run away after a roadside bomb blast, which is exactly what happened in Haditha, Marines say.


The prosecution will probably dispute that interpretation of the rules of engagement. Tatum's testimony was unsworn and he was not subject to cross examination in the Article 32 hearing. There were probably inconsistencies with the statement that was provided by the NIS investigator who interviewed him in Iraq, but the defense has already indicated it will challenge that account. Tatum's story appears to be the result of skillful preparation by his defense team. It is what he would probably have told the investigators if he had access to counsel during the initial interview. The hearing officer will have to decide which story is the most credible in making a recommendation on whether a court martial is necessary. If the prosecutors are rebuffed on this case, there whole case will be in serious trouble.

The report in the North County Times add some detail.

...

"I didn't know there was women and children in that house until later," Lance Cpl. Stephen Tatum said in a hushed Camp Pendleton courtroom. "Otherwise, I would have physically stopped everybody in that room from shooting."

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I think he helped himself with his statement.

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