Shoot the Messenger
Were 5 Unarmed and Wounded Iraqi's
Murdered By U.S. Marines?


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Last November when a US marine shot dead an unarmed, wounded Iraqi in a Fallujah mosque, the story created international headlines. In fact, it was the biggest scandal to hit the US military in Iraq since Abu Ghraib. What we still don't know is what actually went on outside the frame of that now infamous image?

Explosive Video Report From SBS Australia - Broadcast 04/20/05

In his first international interview, the journalist responsible for capturing that awful shooting spoke with Dateline's Sophie McNeill, and a warning - this story contains strong language and confronting images. Let me say that we've left some particularly graphic scenes in this report because we believe they're critical to understanding exactly what happened that day in Fallujah.

REPORTER: Sophie McNeill 
There were a number of journalists embedded with the US Marines as they embarked on the battle for Fallujah in November of last year. One of those reporters was Kevin Sites from the American network NBC. 

KEVIN SITES, NBC NEWS: This morning the marines, the marines swept into the centre of the city unopposed. 

Kevin has spent nearly 10 months as an embedded journalist in Iraq. But he'd never before captured anything like this. 

SOLDIER: He's faking he's fucking dead. 

KEVIN SITES: I had a pit in my stomach. I didn't feel like this was great footage. I knew exactly what it was. It was something that has been captured on camera very few times in war. 

Reports of a marine shooting an unarmed, wounded combatant quickly flashed around the world. 
At the time, most Western audiences didn't even get to see the shooting. For instance, NBC only showed this black-and-white still. But with Kevin's raw footage and his eyewitness account, Dateline can now reveal the full story behind the incident. 
It had all begun the day before the shooting. Kevin had been at that same mosque with a unit of the third battalion first marine division. As the US troops fought their way into the mosque on that Friday, they had killed 10 out of 15 suspected insurgents. 

SOLDIER: Yeah, we've got to fucking put two in each bag. 

Five wounded men remained. They were disarmed and treated by marine medics. 

KEVIN SITES: Their wounds didn't seem to be life-threatening, they were serious but not life-threatening and I asked the lieutenant colonel what will be done with these men? Will they be evacuated? And he said, "Yes, they will." So we left that mosque, the men were still alive. Apparently they were left unguarded but without weapons or anything and the marines advanced forward, moving south from the city. 

The next morning, on the Saturday, Kevin and the marines returned to that mosque after reports of fresh fire from the area. When Kevin was still outside the mosque, he heard shooting. 

SOLDIER: They're on the fourth floor. Far right, far right. 

KEVIN SITES: We heard gunshots outside the mosque before we went in. And to my ear - I'm pretty familiar with what an M16 sounds like - they were single M16 gunshots and there were three of them. 
It sounded like someone was being fired upon, and then moving over, firing again and then firing again. 

Kevin overheard the following exchange between the platoon commander and his troops before they went inside. 

SOLDIER: Did you shoot them? 

SOLDIER 2: Roger that, sir. 

KEVIN SITES: He comes up to the squad that had been inside the mosque and he says "Are there people inside there?" and the marine that had been inside holds up five fingers signalling five people inside. And then the lieutenant asks "Did you shoot them?", and the marine says "Roger that, sir." And then the lieutenant asks "Were they armed?" and the marine just shrugs his shoulders. 

SOLDIER: Same guys from yesterday? 

KEVIN SITES: These are the ones from yesterday. These are the wounded that they never picked up. 
When I walked into that room, I immediately knew that these men that had just been shot again were the same wounded insurgents from Friday, from the day before. 

So apart from the shooting Kevin captured on camera, he believes these other unarmed wounded men were also shot that day. This was largely ignored by the media at the time. 

KEVIN SITES: We look at the evidence that these men were definitely shot again, freshly shot, after having been wounded the day before. And then one is actually killed point blank in front of my camera. 

After capturing that image, Kevin discovers that this man is still alive. 

MAN, (Translation): I was shot... 

KEVIN SITES: what happened? 

MAN ,(Translation): Please... I was shot... there... I spoke... with you... who are filming. Yesterday, here in front of the whole group. I gave information. Please. Speak Arabic anything? 

KEVIN SITES: I don't speak Arabic. 

MAN: I want to give you information. 

The fate of this witness is unknown. 

KEVIN SITES: I felt at that moment I wish I hadn't been there. I wish I hadn't been in that spot at that time just because I knew the responsibility I would have from that moment on. 

Having been embedded with one particular marine unit for six weeks, Kevin had become very close to the men. But things changed dramatically after the shooting. 

KEVIN SITES: It was a really dark time. I had time after this incident where I was moved to the rear from the front line, I had to leave my unit. 

But the reaction from back home was much worse. Kevin came under personal attack from the American public. 

KEVIN SITES: I spent my days poring over thousands of hate mails and death threats every day. They were calling me a traitor, a liberal media scumbag, hope that the next piece of video we see your severed head on your back, hope some marine frags you over there, hope the insurgents kill you, everything that you can possibly imagine. I'll be honest with you, there were times when I really felt like I wanted to destroy that tape and not release it to the public. 

The controversy over Kevin's footage has fed into a growing debate about how the American media reports home from the war in Iraq. Kevin is showing these final-year journalism students the difference between the raw footage he shot and the report that was actually put to air. 

KEVIN SITES: You probably have never seen this because I don't think it's even aired on American television, the full shooting. 

With the war such a hot political issue, the American media has become very reluctant to criticise the actions of American soldiers. So even before Kevin received the hate mails, he and NBC knew the delicate tightrope they would have to tread. 
In the NBC report, Kevin went to great lengths to explain why the marine might have pulled the trigger. 

KEVIN SITES: These US Marines have had to fight for nearly every inch of ground taken in Fallujah. They've inflicted heavy casualties on insurgents here but have also suffered many of their own, some from a new and harrowing tactic - booby trapping dead bodies to explode when marines come near. 
We were diluting it every step of the way. A lot of the mitigating circumstances we had to say over and over again - he got shot in the face, they booby trapped bodies. In fact we didn't start with the shooting at all. We talked about X, Y and Z and backed into it. 
At the same time just a block away, one marine was killed and five wounded by the booby trapped body of a dead insurgent. So as dangerous as Iraq is, could the shooting be self-defence? 
That was a conscious effort basically because we felt like we were going to take such fire on the story. 

Some people might think that you defended the marine too much in your report. 

KEVIN SITES: I think that people could make that argument. They could say that the mitigating circumstances were presented in such a strong forthright way that perhaps, you know, the incident that happened didn't get proper play. 
The marine squad has already been in here and shot the wounded men again. 

In the middle of all this media management and political controversy, the real debate appears to have been lost. 

REPORTER: Do you think that because of a paranoia to tell both sides of the story, and to explain everything and to make sure you're not accused of being biased, do you think you can sometimes lose the truth? 

KEVIN SITES: I think that the truth can become muddied in that process, I think that it can become fairly foggy. 

Despite evidence of what appears to be a war crime, the tape hasn't provoked a much greater soul searching about acceptable rules of engagement for the US military. 

KEVIN SITES: Are these the kind of rules of engagement we use? And if so, we should be very open about it. Are we willing to live with the fact that they may do the same thing to US soldiers and US marines and potentially, that kind of rules of engagement will they lead to other repercussions for us in society, will they create more terrorist acts because people feel we are behaving unnecessarily violent or barbaric in war? 

Related Links 
( Kevin Site's Official Website : 

When Sites was criticized for using the controversial footage, he answered the critics and explained his decisions in detail on his weblog. 

( Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism : 
NEW YORK Kevin Sites, a freelance photojournalist for NBC, will be awarded the 2005 Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism on May 12 for his decision-making process after he witnessed and taped a U.S. Marine killing an unarmed Iraqi man in a mosque. 

Sites decided to share the tape with the military, then he worked with NBC to create a "well-nuanced story that aired 48 hours after the incident," according to the Payne announcement. Since he was working as a pool photojournalist at the time, Sites shared the tape with the other news organizations in the pool. 

When Sites was criticized after other outlets used the footage, he answered the critics and explained his decisions in detail on his Weblog,


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