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Massacre in Balad, Iraq: Did U.S. Soldiers Execute a Family of 10 in 2006?

Wikileak Cable Revives Attention on an Unsolved Massacre on March 15, 2006

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Iran-Iraq War memories

An Iranian pays his respects to the victims of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) near the border dividing the two countries. The inconclusive war crippled both countries' economies and society, costing upward of half a million lives and achieving little.

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The war in Iraq, which began in 2003, is replete with allegations of massacres on all sides, whether al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, Shiite insurgents, Sunni insurgents or American and multi-national troops. Most of the allegations are never proven. Most have been, for lack of a better word, forgotten, at least in mainstream media and current public awareness, even as memories and consequences of massacres endure for survivors of those who suffered them most--Iraqi civilians.

One of those alleged massacres took place in the city of Balad, 50 miles north of Baghdad, on March 15, 2006. The story was originally reported by Knight-Ridder in the United States, but was soon forgotten. It was revived in late August 2011, when a Wikileak document corroborated the original Knight-Ridder report.

The revived story was relevant on at least two significant grounds: First, the case was never fully investigated or justice served or reparations offered, if in fact a massacre had taken place. Second, in 2011, as Iraq and the United States were in negotiations to enable the final withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of the year, revelations of the alleged massacre were a complication neither side had expected.

That a massacre took place is not in dispute. What’s in question is who perpetrated the massacre—American troops or Iraqi insurgents.

On March 19, 2006, Matthew Schofield, a Baghdad-based reporter with Knight Ridder Newspapers (which, later that year, was acquired by McClatchy), filed a story that began this way: "Iraqi police have accused American troops of executing 11 people, including a 75-year-old woman and a 6-month-old infant, in the aftermath of a raid last Wednesday on a house about 60 miles north of Baghdad.

"The villagers were killed after American troops herded them into a single room of the house, according to a police document obtained by Knight Ridder Newspapers. The soldiers also burned three vehicles, killed the villagers' animals and blew up the house, the document said."

The U.S. military denied the allegation. Schofield went on to note that "Accusations that U.S. troops have killed civilians are commonplace in Iraq, though most are judged later to be unfounded or exaggerated."

Two days later, Schofield filed a follow-up in which he wrote that an Iraqi p[olice investigation was contradicting the earlier police report: bodies had multiple wounds, not single shots to the head, as the first document had claimed. "But," Schofield went on, "it wasn't possible to say from the portion of the report Knight Ridder was allowed to see whether other pages backed Iraqi police's suspicions that U.S. troops executed the 11 or bolstered the U.S. position that they died during a firefight as the Americans attempted to capture an al-Qaida operative."

At the time, U.S. forces in Iraq were facing the height of the insurgency.

In late August, 2011, a U.S. diplomatic cable revealed through Wikileaks appeared to corroborate the Schofield report of an execution-style massacre. The memo was written by a United Nations investigator on March 27, 2006, referring to the alleged massacre on March 15, 2006. The investigator was Philip Alston, a professor of law at New York University and the U.N.'s special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions beginning in 2004.

According to Alston's report, American forces lost two soldiers in the Balad area between March 6 and March 11, 2006, and consequently launched a raid on the house of Faiz Harrat Khalaf in Balad, to capture members of his family, "on the basis that they were allegedly involved in the killing" of the two soldiers.

at least 10 people were killed during the raid, according to Alston: Faiz Hratt Khalaf, 28, his wife Sumay'ya Abdul Razzaq Khuther, 24, their three children Hawra'a, 5, Aisha, 3, Husam, 5 months old, Faiz's mother Ms. Turkiya Majeed Ali, 74, Faiz's sister (name unknown), Faiz's nieces Asma'a Yousif Ma'arouf, 5, and Usama Yousif Ma'arouf, 3, as well as a visiting relative, Iqtisad Hameed Mehdi, 23. U.S. troops were also accused of calling in an air strike to destroy evidence of a massacre.

Iraqi television subsequently showed the bodies of five children and four women in the morgue in Tikrit. Autopsies carried out at the hospital, according to Alston, "revealed that all corpses were shot in the head and handcuffed."

Alston filed four questions to the American government in his capacity as UN rapporteur, to further his investigation and, he wrote, "without in any way wishing to pre-judge the accuracy of the information received." He asked whether the facts alleged were accurate, and on what basis it was decided to kill rather than capture the family members in the Balad house. He asked what "rules of international law " governed the incident, and what safeguards were used to ensure that the killings complied with international law, and he asked whether the American government intended to compensate the family of the victims.

Alston told McClatchy newspapers that as of 2010, American officials had not responded to his questions. Nor had Iraqi officials. Lack of response from the United States "was the case with most of the letters to the U.S. in the 2006-2007 period," he said. "The tragedy," he told McClatchy, "is that this elaborate system of communications is in place but the (U.N.) Human Rights Council does nothing to follow up when states ignore issues raised with them." The Pentagon refused to identify the military unit in Balad at the time, according to the McClatchy report.

The Guardian in the United Kingdom reported on Sept. 2, 2011, that the Iraqi government was re-opening an inquiry into the massacre and further clouding the future of Iraqi-American relations and the status of American troops in Iraq. "The new report about this crime will have its impact on signing any new agreement," an Iraqi parliamentarian, Aliya Nusayif, told the Associated Press. The U.S. wants immunity from Iraqi law for its troops in Iraq, but Ali al-Moussawi, a spokesman for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, said: "We will not give up the rights of the Iraqi people, and this subject will be followed."

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