Captain blamed in Marine deaths

`Friendly fire' incident in Iraq detailed in report

March 28, 2004|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The worst "friendly fire" incident of the Iraq war has been blamed solely on a Marine captain who called in two Air Force A-10 warplanes to hit suspected enemy locations, unaware that dozens of fellow Marines were in the area, an investigative report by U.S. Central Command concludes.

The unidentified captain's actions "directly resulted" in the friendly fire March 23 of last year because he did not obtain the required approval from his battalion commander before ordering the airstrikes, said the report, a copy of which was obtained by The Sun.

Ten Marines were killed, and three others were wounded, the report said. The incident, though, occurred during a firefight outside the southern city of Nasiriyah, and all 13 Marines were hit by A-10 and enemy fire, it concluded. As a result, it was impossible to determine the exact source of their wounds.

One additional wounded Marine was found to have been hit by only friendly fire, according to the report.

At the time, the Marine captain, a ground-based air controller, was with his Bravo Company inside the city and could not see the area for which he called in the Air Force attacks He believed only enemy forces were there, the report said.

Had the officer consulted his battalion commander, the report said, he would likely have learned that Marines from Charlie Company had rolled into the area. His request for airstrikes would have been rejected, and the friendly fire incident would not have occurred, according to the report, part of a yearlong inquiry.

The captain had been cleared by his company commander, though, to call in the strikes.

"This incident was a very regrettable tragedy that resulted in the deaths and injury of many brave Marines," said the report by an 11-member investigative board led by Air Force Brig. Gen. William F. Hodgkins.

The incident occurred on a day of fighting between Iraqi forces and Marines, who were trying to seize bridges and a canal as they pushed toward Baghdad.

All told, during the hours of battle, the A-10s' cannon fire and missiles, along with Iraqi artillery, rocket-propelled grenades and small-weapons fire, led to the deaths of 18 Marines and wounding of 17 others. Enemy fire killed eight of the Marines and wounded 13 others.

All the Marines were from the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment from Camp Lejeune, N.C.

The investigative board found that the Marine captain did "not act with negligence or reckless disregard," but out of "what he perceived to be in the best interest of saving lives of his fellow Marines." It recommended him for unspecified administrative or disciplinary action.

Gen. John P. Abizaid, commander of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region, referred any decision on disciplinary action against the captain to the Marine Corps. Abizaid also recommended that the Marines "review the conduct" of the Bravo Company commander who approved the captain's actions in calling in the warplanes.

The Marine captain, the ground-based air controller, remained with his unit after the incident and took part in the ensuing days of heavy fighting. "He performed admirably and bravely," the report said.

The two unnamed Air Force pilots, both majors and part of the 103rd Fighter Squadron from the Pennsylvania Air National Guard, took part in multiple airstrikes. The report said the pilots had not acted with negligence and were not held liable. Eventually, the A-10s were ordered to cease fire, and they did, the report said.

Missing videotapes

But the report also said that cockpit videotapes from both planes, which would reveal the targets the A-10s were shooting at, were missing, and that "did hamper investigative efforts."

Without the tapes, the board had to rely solely on witness testimony. The report said the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing based in Kuwait, to which the pilots belonged, did not preserve the tapes as evidence.

One of the Air Force pilots interviewed by investigators said that when he returned to his base, he reported the possibility of friendly fire and turned over the tape over to officials in his squadron. He later searched for the tape but could not find it.

The other pilot told investigators that he had asked squadron officials whether he could keep the tape for review.

"What I think happened was maybe the next day or somewhere in the following sorties, I grabbed the tape and taped over it," he testified.

In endorsing the findings, Abizaid, the commander of forces in the region, noted the missing tapes. He ordered his subordinates to act to safeguard evidence in case of a potential friendly fire incident. The report made no mention of disciplinary action over the tapes.

Unseen vehicles

Some Marine officers say they are bitter that the Air Force pilots were not held at least partly responsible. One of the pilots told investigators that his training did not include visually recognizing a Marine armored vehicle, which is dark green with tracks and is 26 feet long.

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