BAGHDAD, Iraq-- --The killing began shortly after sunrise on a November day in Haditha. As a U.S. patrol rolled through the sleepy riverside city, a homemade bomb exploded beneath the belly of a Humvee, rocking the town.
"The Americans who were in the first vehicle came back to the damaged car. They started to scream and shout," said a portly shopkeeper with gray hair who would give his name as only Abu Mukkaram. He said he watched the aftermath from his bedroom window. "After some minutes, everything was quiet. During this quiet, no bullets were shot. They were moments of expectation."
Ten minutes passed in silence. Then Abu Mukkaram heard the crack of the first bullets.
Planted by insurgents at the edge of the road, the bomb had killed Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas, a 20-year-old Marine from El Paso, Texas. According to Haditha residents, survivors and witnesses, Terrazas' death drove some of the troops into a murderous rage.
Survivors say furious Marines rampaged through a quiet street, bursting into homes and gunning down Iraqi civilians - including children, women and an old man in a wheelchair. Their account appears to match details emerging from a military investigation into the 24 Iraqi civilians killed under disputed circumstances the morning of Nov 19.
Here in Iraq, word of the deaths has spread slowly out of Haditha these past months, blurring into the steady background noise of daily horrors. To an Iraqi public that's been psychologically scarred by more than three years of civilian death and maiming, news of two dozen more lost lives has grabbed few headlines.
But that November morning is emerging as a turning point in the war - a moment when the dreary years of thinning patience and mutual mistrust between American forces and Iraqi civilians may have crystallized into a burst of bloodshed.
Sliced in half by the waters of the Tigris, Haditha is a quiet, lush community nestled in groves of date palms, oranges and apples. A verdant spot against the backdrop of barren western desert, the town is home to 90,000 people.
This account comes from eyewitness and survivor interviews conducted by Iraqi reporters for the Los Angeles Times in Baghdad and Haditha. The Iraqi reporter who traveled to Haditha cannot be named for security reasons.
The Marines arrived first at the door of Abdul Hamid Hassan Ali, an 89-year-old retiree who had been using a wheelchair ever since his left leg was amputated, surviving family members said. The troops shot him dead, then turned their guns on his three grown sons and their families.
Waleed Abdul Hameed, a 48-year-old worker in the Anbar religious affairs office, was among the first to be gunned down. His 9-year-old daughter, Eman, who survived, said she was still wearing her pajamas when the Marines arrived. Her 7-year-old brother, Abdul Rahman, also survived, and said he hid his face with a blanket when his father was shot.
A few minutes later, the boy saw his mother fall to the ground, dying.
"I saw her while she was crying," he said. "She fell down on the floor bleeding. She was suffering without the help of anyone." Speaking days ago in Haditha, months after the attacks, the boy broke down crying, covered his eyes with his hands and began to mutter to himself. At his side, his older sister began to speak again. She described how the two siblings waited for help, the bodies of their dead family members sprawled on the floor.
"We were scared, not able to move for two hours," she said. "I tried to hide under the bed. I was injured, with some shrapnel in my legs." Seven of their family members died in the shootout: Ali and his wife, their three sons and one daughter-in-law, and their 5-year-old grandson. Only one of the household's adults lived through that morning.
In the first moments of shooting, Hibba Abdullah snatched her 5-month-old niece off the floor - the baby's mother had dropped her there in shock after seeing her husband gunned down - and scampered out of the house. She and the baby girl, Asia, survived.
The baby's mother "completely collapsed when they killed her husband in front of her," she said. "I ran away carrying Asia outside the house, but when the Americans returned they killed Asma, the mother of the child." Abdullah's 39-year-old husband also slipped out of the house and ran to warn his nearby cousins about the killings. But he crossed paths with the American troops on his way back home; he died of gunshot wounds to the shoulder and head, his wife said.
The Marines stopped next at the home of customs official Younis Salim Nusaif, 45, and his wife, Aida Yassin, 42. Yassin, a mother of six, was lying in bed that morning, recovering from a recent operation. While she recuperated, her sister had come to stay with the family and help with the housework.
Everybody was at home when the gunmen arrived. And except for one 12-year-old daughter, the family was wiped out. Four girls and one boy, their ages ranging from 4 to 15, were shot dead by the Marines, said neighbors and the surviving child.
Safa Younis Salim, a schoolgirl, said she lay on the ground, covered with her sister's blood, and pretended to be dead while her family died around her. Her sister's blood spurted fast; it was like a water tap, she said.
During a meeting with a reporter, Salim was withdrawn and reluctant to talk about the attack. Only after her relatives coaxed her to speak would she describe how she played dead to stay alive that morning. The American troops yelled in the faces of her family members before they shot them, she said. After they were shot, they kicked them and hit the bodies with their guns.
"I feel sorry. I was wishing to be alive," said Salim, a girl with a round face and big brown eyes. "Now I wish I had died with them."
The Americans moved along the street, shooting dead a man named Jamal Aid and his four sons, whose ages ranged from 20 to 38. At that home, the troops herded the women outside, pointed guns at their heads and ordered them to stay still, according to Aid's wife, who did not want her name published.
The men were grouped inside. Then gunfire rang out.
"After some minutes the soldiers ran out and left the house," she said. The women went inside, and found the men dead.
"They were shot in different parts of their bodies," she said. "Spots of blood covered the place. Blood was coming out."
The last five men to die came upon the scene by chance. Four university students, two of them brothers, and their taxi driver drove too close to the spot where the families had been killed. Witnesses said U.S. troops stopped their car, ordered them to get out and shot them dead.
When the killing was over, the Americans continued to guard the street, keeping relatives away. Eventually, the troops took the bodies to the hospital, a medical source in Haditha said.
Since that November day, the people of Haditha have been haunted. The survivors described sinking into depression.
Much of the talk in town has centered on the U.S. offer of $2,500 in compensation for each death. Some of the families say they turned down the money. In March, the townspeople said, American investigators arrived. They brought cameras to record the witnesses, and toys for the surviving children.
In Washington yesterday, President Bush said he was "troubled by the initial news stories" about the events in Haditha.
"I am mindful that there is a thorough investigation going on. If, in fact, the laws were broken, there will be punishment," he said in the Oval Office, during a picture-taking session with President Paul Kagame, of Rwanda.
In contrast with the prominence of the Haditha story in the U.S. media, the deaths have received comparatively little attention here.
Some Sunni Arabs argue that majority Shiite Muslims simply aren't very interested in the bloodshed that affects the mainly Sunni western provinces.
"The local satellite channels are affiliated with militias and Shiite parties," said Omar al-Jubouri, head of the human rights office for the Iraqi Islamic Party. "That's why they don't show the violations against the Sunnis."
Others point out that Iraqis have such a tarnished view of U.S. forces that the notion of foreign troops killing innocent civilians simply doesn't deliver much shock.
"It doesn't mean that much to hear that 20 people were killed by the Americans," said Hassan Bazzaz, a political analyst in Baghdad. "Every single day people are killed and thrown in the streets, in the garbage cans. They're scared to death. They don't even have time to think about what happened in Haditha."
Megan K. Stack and Raheem Salman write for the Los Angeles Times.