A small group of US Marines alleged to have killed up to two dozen Iraqi civilians conducted a house-to-house hunt that stretched over three hours, while other Marines in Haditha did not intervene, according to an Iraqi human rights investigator.
The interview of the activist is the most detailed account yet of Iraqi accusations that Marines went on a rampage after a comrade was killed by a roadside bomb. Two separate US military investigations of the incident are under way.
Thaer al-Hadithi, a member and spokesman for the Hammurabi human-rights association, a Sunni Muslim group, recounted with the help of a satellite map when and where Iraqi civilians cowered and sometimes died.
The military, after initially saying the Iraqi deaths were the result of the roadside bomb and a subsequent gunfight with insurgents, has not publicly released updated findings. But newer accounts, including details from briefings to members of Congress, have indicated at least some of the 24 deaths were the result of deliberate gunfire by a small group of Marines seeking revenge for the bombing, and that their actions were covered up by other Marines in the area who knew or suspected what had occurred.
Al-Hadithi's account is mostly in line with other, eyewitness reports. He said he expanded his personal observations at the time with follow-up interviews of other witnesses who saw actions that he could not see from his house. He made repeated visits to the restive town to get information, he said.
Al-Hadithi, 42, said he had been visiting his family in Haditha in western Iraq for a Muslim holiday when he was awakened on the morning of Nov. 19 by an explosion that he later learned to be a roadside bomb that hit a US convoy of four Humvees, killing one Marine.
A native of the town, al-Hadithi was an administrator in Haditha's main hospital before he took leave to work with Hammurabi, which was set up 16 months ago.
He said the roadside bombing took place on a road about 100m-150m from his family home.
"There was an eerie silence after the explosion," he said in Hammurabi's Baghdad offices.
"Then, we started to hear noises, soldiers shouting, that grew louder and louder," said al-Hadithi, who spoke with a map of the town he downloaded from the Internet.
The first gunshots were heard at around 7:30am, he said, when the Marines moved into the family home of Abdul-Hamid Hassan Ali, a blind and elderly man in failing health. The house is just south of the spot where the roadside bomb went off, al-Hadithi said.
Later, the Marines moved next door to the house of Younis Salem Rsayef and his family.
"There was intense gunfire and I could see a fire at the Rsayef home," said al-Hadithi, who watched from a window at his family home.
One of the 24 bodies taken to Haditha's main hospital late on Nov. 19 was charred, according to Walid Abdul-Hameed al-Obeidi, the hospital director. That was believed to be one of Rsayef's sons, who witnesses said was burned to death after a grenade was thrown into his room.
Ali and his wife Khamisa Toamah Ali were killed along with three of their sons, a daughter-in-law and a grandson, according to witnesses, hospital officials and human rights workers.
In the second home, eight people were killed: Rsayef, his wife, her sister and five children.
"You could tell that someone was killed by the gunfire and then the wailing and screaming of women seconds after the Americans left the house," al-Hadithi said.