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A reporter's shock at the Haditha allegations

By Arwa Damon
CNN

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CNN's Arwa Damon

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- It actually took me a while to put all the pieces together -- that I know these guys, the U.S. Marines at the heart of the alleged massacre of Iraqi civilians in Haditha.

I don't know why it didn't register with me until now. It was only after scrolling through the tapes that we shot in Haditha last fall, and I found footage of some of the officers that had been relieved of their command, that it hit me.

I know the Marines that were operating in western al Anbar, from Husayba all the way to Haditha. I went on countless operations in 2005 up and down the Euphrates River Valley. I was pinned on rooftops with them in Ubeydi for hours taking incoming fire, and I've seen them not fire a shot back because they did not have positive identification on a target. (Watch a Marine's anguish over deaths -- 2:12)

I saw their horror when they thought that they finally had identified their target, fired a tank round that went through a wall and into a house filled with civilians. They then rushed to help the wounded -- remarkably no one was killed.

I was with them in Husayba as they went house to house in an area where insurgents would booby-trap doors, or lie in wait behind closed doors with an AK-47, basically on suicide missions, just waiting for the Marines to come through and open fire. There were civilians in the city as well, and the Marines were always keenly aware of that fact. How they didn't fire at shadows, not knowing what was waiting in each house, I don't know. But they didn't.

And I was with them in Haditha, a month before the alleged killings last November of some 24 Iraqi civilians.

I'm told that investigators now strongly suspect a rampage by a small number of Marines who snapped after one of their own was killed by a roadside bomb.

Haditha was full of IEDs. It seemed they were everywhere, like a minefield. In fact, the number of times that we were told that we were standing right on top of an IED minutes before it was found turned into a dark joke between my CNN team and me.

In fact, when we initially left to link up with the company that we were meant to be embedded with, the Humvee that I was in was hit by an IED. Another 2 inches and we would have been killed. Thankfully, no one was injured.

We missed the beginning of the operation, and ended up entering Haditha that evening. The city was empty of insurgents, or they had gone into hiding as they so often do, blending with the civilian population, waiting for U.S. and Iraqi forces to sweep through and then popping up again.

But this time, after this operation, the Marines and the Iraqi Army were not going to pull out, they were going to set up fixed bases.

Now, all these months later, while watching the tapes, I found a walk and talk with one of the company commanders that was relieved of his duty as a result of the Haditha probe.

After being hit by an IED, his men were searching the area and found a massive weapons cache in a mosque. Although it wasn't his company that we were embedded with, the Marines had taken me to the mosque so we could get footage of the cache.

And so began the e-mails and phone calls between myself and my two other CNN crew members, Jennifer Eccleston and Gabe Ramirez: Do you remember when we were talking with the battalion commander and his intel guy right outside the school and then half an hour later they found an IED in that spot? Do you remember when we were sitting chatting with them at the school? And all the other "do you remember whens."

There was also -- can you believe it? -- the allegations of the Haditha probe.

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