Massacre story mars US Memorial Day

Monday’s observance of Memorial Day, the annual commemoration of US soldiers who died in the service of their country, has taken place at a particularly difficult moment for both the US armed forces and the Bush administration. While the traditions of parades, barbecues, and family visits to the cemetery to plant flags along the grave markers of veterans were duly honoured, the news from Iraq and Afghanistan — where a total of 150,000 US troops are deployed — was anything but upbeat.

While Monday’s fatal crash of a runaway military truck in Kabul sparked the worst outbreak of anti-US demonstrations in the Afghan capital since the ouster of the Taliban in 2001, dozens of people, including two British members of a CBS News television crew, were reported killed in the latest surge of gunfire and bomb attacks throughout Iraq. The incident in Afghanistan, in which at least half a dozen people were reported killed — some allegedly by US troops — in the rioting that followed the crash, underlined the degree to which foreign forces are resented. It also temporarily diverted attention to the unprecedented resurgence of Taliban forces in the country’s Pashtun belt, where a series of violent clashes have left several hundred dead over the past two weeks.

In Iraq, where the new government headed by Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki is still struggling to gain consensus on who should head the all-important defence and interior ministries, the ongoing violence and intensified ethnic cleansing, particularly in Baghdad, are forcing a similar reassessment. Plans to bring home at least 30,000 out of the 133,000 US troops currently deployed there by the mid-term Congressional elections in November appear to have been put on hold, much to the chagrin of nervous Republican candidates who know that the unpopularity of both the war and of President Bush poses a serious threat to their electoral ambitions.

While the situations in both countries underline the doubtfulness of Bush’s pledges of “complete victory” in his “war on terror”, what makes this year’s Memorial Day particularly downbeat is the impending release of an official report on what almost certainly was a massacre of as many as two dozen unarmed Iraqis, including one five-month-old baby girl, carried out by US Marines in Haditha, Iraq, last November.

First reported in March by Time, the three- to five-hour killing spree, which is being widely compared to the bloodier 1968 My Lai massacre that helped turn public opinion decisively against the Vietnam War after it became public in late 1969, has reportedly been detailed to some lawmakers behind closed doors by senior military officers and Pentagon officials last week.

The Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, John Warner, announced Sunday that he would hold hearings on the incident. In the Haditha case, one battalion commander and two company commanders have reportedly been relieved of their posts, while several Marines who allegedly carried out the killings are being held. To many, who has called for a US withdrawal from Iraq for the last six months, however, the incident and its aftermath are yet one more indication that the administration failed to anticipate an unconventional war in Iraq and train and equip US troops adequately to cope with it. — IPS