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Haditha: Within two days Marine commanders knew soldiers lied
NY Times
June 3, 2006

WASHINGTON, June 2 — Marine commanders in Iraq learned within two days of the killings in Haditha last November that Iraqi civilians had died from gunfire, not a roadside bomb as initially reported, but the officers involved saw no reason to investigate further, according to a senior Marine officer.

The commanders have told investigators they had not viewed as unusual, in a combat environment, the discrepancies that emerged almost immediately in accounts about how the two dozen Iraqis died, and that they had no information at the time suggesting that any civilians had been killed deliberately.

But the handling of the matter by the senior Marine commanders in Haditha, and whether officers and enlisted personnel tried to cover up what happened or missed signs suggesting that the civilian killings were not accidental, has become a major element of the investigation by an Army general into the entire episode.

Officials have said that the investigation, while not yet complete, is likely to conclude that a small group of marines carried out the unprovoked killings of two dozen civilians in the hours after a makeshift bomb killed a marine.

A senior Marine general familiar with the investigation, which is being led by Maj. Gen. Eldon A. Bargewell of the Army, said in an interview that it had not yet established how high up the chain of command culpability for the killings extended. But he said there were strong suspicions that some officers knew that the Marine squad's version of events had enough holes and discrepancies that it should have been looked into more deeply.

"It's impossible to believe they didn't know," the Marine general said, referring to midlevel and senior officers. "You'd have to know this thing stunk." He was granted anonymity, along with others who described the investigation, because he was not authorized to speak publicly about it.

In recent weeks, investigators have interviewed the Marine commanders who were serving in Iraq at the time of the killings, including Maj. Gen. Stephen T. Johnson, commander of the Second Marine Expeditionary Force in Iraq, and Maj. Gen. Richard A. Huck, commander of the Second Marine Division, a senior Pentagon adviser said.

Military officials said Friday that interviews with all senior officers in the chain of command were a routine part of any wide-ranging inquiry, and did not necessarily indicate culpability on their part.

But even before the investigation is completed, the Marine Corps commandant, Gen. Michael Hagee, is considering relieving some senior Marine commanders who served in Iraq at the time of the killings, the Pentagon adviser said, citing what the adviser called a "loss of confidence" in those officers.

General Hagee has not decided whether to relieve any of the officers in positions of command, and was said to be weighing whether such a move would damage morale and be seen as prejudging the outcome of the investigation.

Lt. Col. Scott Fazekas, a Marine spokesman, said he had "no information" about the possibility of officers being relieved.

On Friday, in a visit to Camp Lejeune, N.C., where the Second Marine Expeditionary Force is based, General Hagee addressed a gathering of marines on compliance with international laws of armed conflict and the military's rules of engagement.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, speaking at a security conference in Singapore, cautioned that inquiries and any possible cover-up were still under review. "We'll soon know the answers," Mr. Rumsfeld said.

Another officer, who served with the Second Marine Expeditionary Force in Iraq and has been questioned by investigators, said in an interview that he recalled nothing in the reports on the Nov. 19 killings that indicated marines had acted improperly after their convoy was hit that morning by a roadside bomb.

He acknowledged that the initial reports from the field indicated inaccurately that noncombatants were killed in the bomb explosion. The Marines also issued a press release the day after the killings that said 15 Iraqi civilians had died in the bomb blast and 8 insurgents had been killed in an ensuing firefight.

Yet debriefings on Nov. 20 gave rise to another version of events. Marines at the site said that the civilians had been killed by cross-fire during a firefight with suspected insurgents, the officials said.

Investigators have since come to the view that 24 civilians died, apparently from shots fired at them by Americans, and not as random victims of stray bullets in a gunfight.

But the senior officer said, "On the 19th and 20th of November, there was no information to indicate there was a law of war violation."

The fact that Iraqis were killed by gunfire, not by the bomb explosion, did not raise any red flags because marines were saying that insurgents had been firing at them after the bomb went off, he said. In addition, the bomb attack that morning was followed by a series of other insurgent attacks that day, further confusing the situation.

In retrospect, he said, it might have been advisable to correct the inaccurate press release, but the Marines did not consider doing that then. Investigators have been examining whether there were signs of a cover-up by marines that senior officers missed or ignored, including the circumstances of the shooting of five Iraqi men in a taxi shortly after the roadside bomb exploded.

In interviews with Col. Gregory Watt of the Army, who conducted a preliminary inquiry into the killings, the marines maintained they gave hand and arm signals, directing the taxi approaching their position to stop, according to a military official in Iraq who was briefed on the colonel's report.

Seconds later, the marines said, the bomb exploded. Fearing that the car's occupants either detonated the explosive or acted as spotters for those who did, the marines ordered the five men who were getting out of the car to stop and lie down on the ground.

Instead, the five men — four students and a driver — turned and ran, and the marines shot them, the troops told Colonel Watt.

But the investigator pressed the marines: if none of the Iraqi men had weapons and none had threatened the marines, why did the troops shoot them? The marines did not have a convincing reply, said the official who was briefed on the report.

Along with General Bargewell's inquiry, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service is investigating whether criminal charges should be brought against the marines involved. Investigators in that inquiry have confiscated 12 weapons from the Marine squad that carried out the killings, the Marine general said.

But he added that the process of matching weapons with bullets in bodies had been delayed because families of the Iraqi victims were refusing to exhume the bodies.

John Kifner contributed reporting from Buffalo for this article.

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