WASHINGTON, D.C. -- By now, almost everyone in the world with a television has seen the videotape that appears to show a U.S. Marine shooting a wounded Iraqi terrorist inside a mosque in Fallujah. For the record, here are the facts, because facts -- not rumors or emotions -- really are important. Here is what those who were there told me:
On Friday, Nov. 12, U.S. Marines were fired upon by terrorists armed with AK-47s, RPD machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades from a mosque and an adjacent building. The Marines returned fire, first with M-16s and 240G machine guns, and then, as they continued to take fire and casualties, they escalated to an MK-19, a 40mm grenade launcher and then an AT-4 missile.
When none of these weapons successfully eliminated enemy fire, the platoon commander called for and received permission to open fire with the main gun of an M-1 Abrams tank and then storm the buildings. In the ensuing assault, 10 terrorists were killed and five others were wounded, as the Marines went room-to-room clearing the buildings. Immediately afterward, two correspondents accompanying coalition forces were shown a large quantity of AK-47s, machine guns, mortar rounds, explosives, RPGs and hand grenades that had been stored in the mosque.
While the print and broadcast cameramen were photographing the evidence of a war crime -- weapons being stored in a place of worship -- the Marine unit received an order over the radio to advance and secure another building. As the bone-tired troops departed for their next objective, one of the correspondents asked what would become of the wounded terrorists. A Marine sergeant replied that another unit was to move up and evacuate the injured enemy to the rear for treatment and detention.
The following morning -- Saturday -- another platoon of Marines from a different company was attacked from the mosque. A second gunfight ensued, and once again, a squad of Marines assaulted the structure. They were accompanied by NBC correspondent Kevin Sites and his cameraman, taping for the "pool" -- meaning that whatever tape he filed would be available to all the networks accredited to cover Operation New Dawn.
According to the videotape and the report filed after the action, as the Marines burst into one of the rooms inside the mosque, they found four terrorists -- one dead and three wounded. In the video that has now been seen around the world, one of the battle-weary Marines points his weapon at one of the enemy combatants lying against the wall and shouts, "He's (expletive) faking he's dead. He's faking he's (expletive) dead." An instant later, the Marine raises his rifle and fires into the insurgent's head. Immediately thereafter, another Marine can be heard saying, "Well, he's dead now."
For American broadcasts, the actual shot is "blacked out." But when the tape airs on Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, Lebanon TV and other Arab media outlets, nothing is left to the imagination. Unfortunately, neither version is accurate -- though both are very troubling. Like so much of what's on television today, only the goriest, most sensational portion of the tape has aired. As a consequence, "the rest of the story" -- as my friend Paul Harvey puts it -- has been lost in the clamor created by 15 seconds of videotape.
Only a few have seen the footage shot the day before -- providing irrefutable evidence that the mosque was a well-defended arms depot. And fewer still have viewed the very next sequence after "the shooting," which shows two Marines pointing their weapons at another combatant lying motionless. Suddenly, one of the Marines jumps back as the terrorist stretches out his hand, motioning that he is alive. Neither Marine opens fire.
According to the Marines, a Navy medical corpsman was then summoned to treat the two wounded prisoners. In his original written report, Sites, the correspondent who videotaped the shooting, doesn't mention the medical treatment provided to the injured enemy combatants, but he does note that four of the combatants were some of those who had been left behind from the firefight on Friday. If the NBC reporter knew that from being there the day before, why didn't he tell this new group of Marines before they rushed into the room?
None of that is included in the tape, which is now being used to raise Islamic ire at the "American invader." Why? And why did it take more than a day to learn that the Marine seen shooting on the videotape had been wounded in the face the day before if the correspondent knew that when he filed the videotape? Why didn't the original story include the fact that a Marine in the same unit had been killed 24 hours earlier while searching the booby-trapped dead body of a terrorist?
Within hours of the videotaped incident in the mosque, another Marine was killed and five others wounded by a booby-trapped body they found in a house after a gunfight. Why was this not made part of the original story? Even Amnesty International, no friend to the American armed forces, has reported that the Iraqi terrorists have illegally used white flags to lure coalition forces into ambushes. Yet this, too, is absent in the original story.
Though the Arab media doesn't mention it, the incident is being fully investigated -- even as combat operations continue. If a court martial is convened, the young Marine in the videotape will have a chance to defend his actions. Meanwhile, Arab broadcasts outside Iraq that won't even mention the murder of relief worker Margaret Hassan will replay the "shooting video" for weeks to come as an incitement to join the Jihad.
In the rush to air sensational footage, the "pool" system failed us all. Worse yet, it failed the young soldiers and Marines and their brave Iraqi allies who are fighting to liberate Fallujah from the terrorists' bloody grip. Even though the "shooting video" lacked context and failed to tell the full story -- it became the big story. If it becomes the story of Fallujah, that would be a crime.