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04-30-07, 08:49 AM
Report: Hadithah deaths lacked inquiry
Investigation faults chain of command, but finds no deliberate cover-up
By Thomas Watkins - The Associated Press
Posted : May 07, 2007

SAN DIEGO — High-ranking Marines, including a two-star general, failed to adequately scrutinize the killings of 24 Iraqi civilians in Hadithah despite an obvious need for further investigation, according to an Army probe into the 2005 incident.

The report by Army Maj. Gen. Eldon Bargewell found that Marines did not deliberately try to cover up the deaths, but said their overall mind-set, which viewed such civilian fatalities as “routine,” played down the importance of civilian casualties.

“There was evidence of an attitude that portrayed non-combatants as not necessarily innocents, which may have fostered a willingness to accept reported circumstances that might otherwise appear dubious,” Bargewell wrote. “A duty to inquire further was so obvious in this case that a reasonable person with knowledge of these events would certainly have made further inquiries.”

Bargewell’s criticism extends from enlisted Marines up to Maj. Gen. Richard Huck, who was in charge of 2nd Marine Division at the time. After learning of allegations that troops had targeted civilians, Marine commanders had “sufficient knowledge and a duty” to report and investigate a possible law-of-war violation, but did not, Bargewell said.

The slayings occurred Nov. 19, 2005, when a roadside bomb destroyed a Humvee in a Marine convoy, killing the driver. In the aftermath, a Marine squad stands accused of using grenades and machine guns to kill 24 Iraqis, including women and children inside their homes.

Three enlisted men are charged with unpremeditated murder and four officers are charged with dereliction of duty for failing to investigate the deaths. Preliminary court hearings are scheduled to begin in May at Camp Pendleton, Calif.

The enlisted men say they are innocent and followed proper procedures to deal with a threat. Officers claim that they correctly reported and investigated the attack. Another Marine was also charged initially, but those charges were dropped recently after the man was given immunity to testify against the others.

Bargewell, himself a two-star general, was unable to question anyone who outranked him but recommended that “higher echelon commanders” be interviewed.

He completed his 104-page report in June 2006 after interviewing dozens of Marines in Iraq and the U.S. A copy was provided to The Associated Press by someone close to the investigation who declined to be identified because the document is not public.

Bargewell said Marines had an “observable preoccupation” with friendly casualties, even though civilian losses were far higher.

“All levels of command tended to view civilian casualties, even in significant numbers, as routine and as the natural and intended result of insurgent tactics,” Bargewell wrote.

Lt. Col. Sean Gibson, spokesman for Marine Forces Central Command, declined to comment on Bargewell’s findings, which were first reported by The Washington Post.

“It would be inappropriate for me to comment on material that is part of an ongoing investigation,” he said.

Bargewell said Marine officers were reluctant to give credibility to allegations that troops murdered civilians, and that no one took responsibility to investigate.

Maj. Gen. Stephen Johnson, the commanding general of Marines in western Iraq when the killings took place, told Bargewell that he “didn’t feel it was something significant in the sense that I had doubts about the conduct of the Marines.”

“Examples of many civilians being killed at a time were precedent for that,” Johnson said. “It happened all the time.”

Attorneys for some of the officers charged in the case said Bargewell’s report suggests any failure to investigate should not be pinned on their clients.

“It is the chain of command’s responsibility to order an investigation,” said Brian Rooney, an attorney for Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani, former commander of 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, and the highest-ranking Marine among those charged. “They didn’t think one was required, and that is why one wasn’t ordered.”

Kevin McDermott, attorney for Capt. Lucas McConnell, a company commander accused of failing to investigate the killings, said his client correctly alerted higher-ups to the attack. “What my guy believed to be true, he sent this up the chain of command,” McDermott said. “No one said, ‘Skipper, you need to investigate this.’”

Bargewell also faulted the Marines for publishing incorrect or confusing information about the killings. A news release the day after the attack stated that 15 civilians were killed as the result of a roadside bomb blast. In fact, intelligence reports at the time showed at least some deaths were caused by gunfire.

The public affairs officer who wrote the news release said he had “broad-stroked” the way civilians died because he did not want to get into graphic details, according to Bargewell’s report. A Time magazine reporter who saw the news release later questioned what happened, triggering an investigation.

Bargewell found Marines were adequately trained on combat rules, but some who raided houses during the attack failed to follow proper room-clearing techniques.

The Marines had extensive urban-combat training, including house-clearing procedures, but Bargewell said there remained a “level of confusion” about when to use deadly force. He said some of the Marines did not positively identify who they were shooting at, something that may be against military rules of engagement.