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Facing the Real Problems in Iraq

By Ed Koch

Last November, U.S. Marines, incensed by the murder of their comrades, are alleged to have killed two dozen Iraqi non-combatants, including women and children. The facts of this tragedy are now under investigation.

I believe that until formal inquiries are completed, police officers and members of our armed forces not indicted are entitled from the media and others to a presumption of regularity: having acted professionally.

I would rather apologize to the victims of alleged atrocities for having been wrong in maintaining this presumption than to have to apologize to soldiers and police officers later exonerated for having refused to defend them with the presumption of regularity -- professionalism.

I pray that the Marines are not guilty and are exonerated. But if the evidence is conclusive that they are to blame, I support their punishment. In all events, it is important to be sure not to attack the entire armed forces or the entire police department when incidents occur unless the outrages established can be shown to be systemic and pervasive. If it is the improper conduct of a few, punish the few. If the conduct is pervasive and systemic, then sweeping reforms are in order.

The New York Times editorial of June 4th entitled, "A Hard Look at Haditha," written in an accusatory tone makes clear The Times conclusion of guilt before the investigations are concluded: "The apparent cold-blooded killing last November of 24 Iraqi civilians by United States Marines at Haditha will be hard to dispose of with another Washington damage control operation. The Iraqi government has made clear that it will not sit still for one, and neither should the American people. This affair cannot simply be dismissed as the spontaneous cruelty of a few bad men."

I do not know what the investigation will reveal, and neither does The Times editorial board. With all the attention properly being given to this incident, I doubt it will end in a whitewash. The citizens of the U.S. will not accept a whitewash, and it would become a major issue in the November elections. Aside from the normal feelings of pride that most Americans have in the valor and professionalism of our armed forces, there is also the fact that we are at war. Huge numbers of Islamic fanatics want to kill us. They have demonstrated their hatred many times.

None can forget the attack upon the World Trade Center, and none should forget the daily attacks by terrorists and insurgents on our armed forces in Iraq. This week there were 17 arrests in Canada, where Islamic Canadian terrorists were apprehended for apparently planning to blow up sites in Toronto. In Iraq, not a day goes by when upwards of a hundred innocent Iraqi civilians meet death or injury at the hands of Islamic terrorists. In Iraq this week, bus passengers who were Sunnis were separated from Shia. The latter were killed by terrorists who stopped the bus, and only the Sunnis were permitted to leave alive. War crimes by military personnel, no matter what the provocation, should never be excused. That applies to our armed forces, as well as those of the enemies we face.

The Times, opposed to our waging the war in Iraq, is bent on demeaning and toppling the President of the United States, George W. Bush and the highest Pentagon officials commanding America's armed forces. Anyone violating the rules of war, whether against civilians or military personnel, must be held accountable for their conduct. The punishment upon conviction to be meted out must take into consideration mitigating circumstances that the convicted can present. The courts should not excuse illegal behavior that soldiers may commit on the battlefield seeking to revenge the killing of comrades in arms by the insurrectionists and terrorists.

Members of the U.S. armed forces on patrol are understandably nervous and adrenalin saturated because their lives are in constant jeopardy and if killed or maimed leave their loved ones at home to grieve, cry, pray and even curse the very God they pray to for having deserted them and their son or daughter on the battlefield. So, while stress and anger can never excuse an illegal or irrational action on the part of someone in combat, it surely can be a mitigating circumstance.

Does The New York Times editorial board believe the army command or the civilians in the President's cabinet or the President himself ordered unlawful conduct on the part of soldiers on the battlefield at Haditha or wanted it to occur? There are charges of a cover-up. The Times reports, "What we now know about the events last Nov. 19 in Haditha, a town in Anbar Province in western Iraq, the violent epicenter of the Sunni Arab insurgency, essentially boils down to this: A roadside bomb struck a Humvee traveling in the vicinity, killing one of the Marines on board, and sometime later 24 Iraqi civilians were gunned down, many in their homes. The victims included women, children and grandparents. We know this not through the original Marine Corps report on the incident, which claimed that all the Iraqi deaths resulted from the bomb and an exchange of gunfire with insurgents. We know it because reporters from Time magazine began challenging inconsistencies between eyewitness Iraqi accounts and the Marine Corps version."

The Times conveys its opinion on responsibility with "We still do not know how high up the Marine Corps chain of command the original cover-up went, nor do we know how the president, the defense secretary and other top officials responded when they first learned of the false reporting." If there was a cover-up, those who engaged in it should be held accountable.

This incident is one more reason to change our policy in Iraq so as to put our NATO and regional allies on notice that we will leave now in an orderly withdrawal ending in six months unless they agree to proportionately share the burden of boots on the ground -- meaning casualties -- and the other costs of the war.

Let me suggest what went wrong and continues to go wrong in both Iraq and Afghanistan. It is the rest of the world shirking its duty and leaving the fighting, dying and casualties to be borne overwhelmingly by the U.S. It is the personal and irrational attacks by the opponents of the war from its inception on the President and Vice President. It is Defense Secretary Rumsfeld not taking the advice of General Shinseki on the number of troops needed to assure tranquility in Iraq after the war. It is the stupidity of Paul Bremer in disbanding the Iraqi army instead of purging its ranks. It is the Iraqi government's inability to create an Iraqi army after more than three years that can defend Iraq from internal and external enemies. It is the refusal of opponents of the war here at home to acknowledge the threat to the U.S. by international terrorists such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the second in command to Osama bin Laden, who warns, "Killing the infidels is our religion, slaughtering them is our religion, until they convert to Islam or pay us tribute." It is the Congress' penchant for engaging in political gain for the benefit of the political Parties at the cost of the nation's security.

Ed Koch is the former Mayor of New York City.

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