Who knows how long it will be before the world knows precisely what happened along Haditha's Hay al-Sinnai Road on the morning of Nov. 19, when 24 Iraqis, almost all of them unarmed, died during a five-hour encounter with a Marine Corps patrol. The incident, first reported by TIME in March, has sparked two major military investigations--one into the possibility that the Marines deliberately murdered unarmed Iraqis and another into a possible cover-up that followed. It has flung open the door to reports, some real, others already discredited, of other civilians being targeted in battle. And it led in part to the startling charge by the Iraqi Prime Minister that such attacks have become a "regular occurrence." Once again, the Bush Administration finds itself on the defensive about a war that is now entering its 40th unrelenting month.
What happened in Haditha has the makings of one of those turning points in a military operation. This one freed a nation from dictatorship, then left Iraq on the verge of anarchy and now looks to many Americans to have been wrong from the start. The crisis has erupted at a distinctly inopportune time, with the Administration trying to reduce the size of the U.S. presence in Iraq, even as military commanders are reporting backsliding in places as diverse as Ramadi in Anbar province and Basra in the south. "We are in trouble in Iraq," says retired Army General Barry McCaffrey, who was recently invited to the White House to share that assessment with President George W. Bush. "Our forces can't sustain this pace, and I'm afraid the American people are walking away from this war." Haditha may accelerate that gait. Like the Abu Ghraib prison scandal before it, Haditha threatens to become one of the war's signature debacles, an alleged atrocity committed by a small group of service members that comes to symbolize the enterprise's larger costs. To some U.S. officers, the impact of the daily stream of accusations about the actions of the men of Kilo Company is conjuring comparisons with the blow from the country's most searing example of battlefield misconduct, the My Lai massacre of 1968, in which U.S. soldiers slaughtered more than 500 Vietnamese. "I worry the combination of Abu Ghraib and Haditha will be the My Lai of this generation," says a senior officer who served in Iraq. "Not because Haditha compares to My Lai, but the perception will be that the military is losing the respect of the American people whom we serve."