Ambassador from Iraq knows firsthand of trouble in Haditha
For Iraq's new ambassador to the United States, Samir Sumaydi, representing his nation is painfully personal. Sumaydi's family hails from the western town of Haditha, the site of an alleged massacre of civilians by U.S. marines last November. His father was born in Haditha; Sumaydi used to spend his summers there.
But for the past 12 months, Sumaydi has known that Haditha has been a tough place to live. One of Sumaydi's cousins was killed in Haditha last June during house-to-house searches by marines in what he believes was an unprovoked and intentional killing.
Sumaydi, who presented his credentials to President Bush yesterday, soon started hearing rumors about a massacre in Haditha by U.S. soldiers. But he was skeptical that disciplined marine units would be so reckless.
"The way it was reported to me, by word of mouth, seemed incredible," he said at the U.S. Institute of Peace in his first public appearance after being sworn in as ambassador. At the time, he did not have any other evidence and decided that the rumors might have been an exaggeration.
Haditha, he knew, was a chaotic town, virtually run by bands of insurgents. "There were no police," he said, "and, effectively, no Iraqi government." Sunni insurgents were terrorizing the population, even staging public executions of people suspected of opposing them. Residents, he said, were being "squeezed" between the insurgents on one side and, on the other, U.S. soldiers, who were caught up in frequent clashes with the heavily armed rebels. Sometimes, civilians would get caught up in these skirmishes.
Then came a report in Time magazine that as many as 24 civilians may have been deliberately gunned down by U.S. marines during an operation in November. The key piece of evidence was a videotape made by an Iraqi journalism student that shows the apparent civilian victims riddled with gunshot wounds, which contradicts the early accounts by marines stationed in Haditha that the residents were killed by a bomb. U.S. military officials have now launched an investigation into the alleged Haditha massacre, and Bush publicly vowed to punish anybody found to be responsible for killing civilians. Sumaydi says he will await the findings of the U.S. investigation. He has also requested a second inquiry by the U.S. military on the death of his cousin.
At the same time, Sumaydi has a hard-earned appreciation of the difficult challenges faced by the U.S. military. As a former interior minister, he tried to battle both Sunni insurgents as well as shady Shiite militias, who operated both inside and outside the Interior Ministry. He also knows that the militia problem has not gone away.
Just two days ago, another cousin of his was kidnapped in Baghdad from the small supermarket that he owns. A band of armed men in dark sedans burst into the store and dragged Sumaydi's cousin away, speeding through an Iraqi military checkpoint. Sumaydi's family members ran to the checkpoint and confronted the soldiers about the cars that had just passed through. But the soldiers said the cars appeared to belong to the Interior Ministry, which later denied any involvement.
Said Sumaydi, "This is not an isolated incident."