One week after President George Bush stood beside Tony Blair in the White House and cited prison torture at Abu Ghraib as his biggest regret of the war in Iraq signs are growing that the alleged massacre of civilians by US Marines in Haditha may cause still more extensive damage to America's standing around the world.
With two investigations by the US military into the Haditha case pending and another announced last week by the Iraqi government, it may be impossible for President Bush formally to make any direct comparison with Abu Ghraib. But commentators and the American public need not be so restrained.
The affair, which centres on claims that members of Kilo Company of the 1st Marine Regiment coldly killed 24 civilians, including infants and a man in a wheelchair, in Haditha in western Iraq last November after a roadside bombing killed one of their own, may also become a defining moment in the American public's view of the war.
If Abu Ghraib is increasingly being evoked, so too is Mai Lai, the March 1968 massacre of 300 people - an entire village - by US soldiers that arguably did more than any other event to turn Americans at home against the Vietnam War.
It does not help that some of the mistakes committed by the White House over Abu Ghraib, notably its slow initial reaction to the affair that some critics saw as deliberate obfuscation, may be being repeated. Officials have admitted that Mr Bush was only briefed on Haditha one month after the Marines began their own probe.
Pentagon officials conceded that initial evidence indeed points to a killing rampage by the Marines. Potentially even more damaging is the implication that members of the unit involved subsequently lied when asked about events in Haditha. The public is sensing the combined stench of a war crime and an attempted cover-up.
"The narrative of this story has pretty much set in already: It's another My Lai, we all know they did it, the brass covered it up, and prison sentences for homicide are merely a formality," Daniel Henninger noted in the Wall Street Journal yesterday. "Haditha is indeed the new Abu Ghraib."
Meanwhile, important distinctions are increasingly being drawn between Abu Ghraib and Haditha. The crimes against humanity committed at the prison were perpetrated by inexperienced and poorly trained American prison guards against inmates. In Haditha, the victims were as young as one and the alleged perpetrators were Marines, soldiers who are meant to symbolise American honour and military professionalism.
"So, Haditha becomes another of the names at which we wince, along with Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and My Lai," Molly Ivins, the columnist and author noted yesterday. "Tell you what: Let's not use the "stress of combat" excuse this time. According to neighbours, the girls in the family of Younis Khafif – the one who kept pleading in English: "I am a friend. I am good" – were 14, 10, 5, 3 and 1 What are they going to say? ‘Under stress of combat we thought the baby was 2'?"
Republicans are also beginning to acknowledge the seriousness of the allegations and the fall-out that may follow at planned hearings in Congress. "It is certainly harmful but I can't assess the extent of the damage," said Senator John McCain, a veteran of Vietnam. "There are allegations and I emphasise allegations, that there was a cover-up. If so, then obviously more senior people would have to be the subject of hearings."
After raising Abu Ghraib in his press conference with Mr Blair, President Bush noted: "We've been paying for that for a long period of time". Payments for Haditha may turn out to be even more costly for Mr Bush and indeed for the whole country.
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