Marines' claims questioned

Probe finds evidence contradicting assertions on how Iraqi civilians died


WASHINGTON --A military investigator uncovered evidence in February and March that contradicted repeated claims by Marines that Iraqi civilians killed in Haditha last November had been the victims of a roadside bomb, according to a senior military official in Iraq.

Among the pieces of evidence that conflicted with the Marines' story were death certificates that showed all the Iraqi victims had gunshot wounds, mostly to the head and chest, the official said.

The investigation, which is being led by Col. Gregory Watt, an Army officer in Baghdad, also raised questions about whether the Marine squad involved followed established rules for identifying hostile threats when they assaulted houses near the site of a bomb attack, which killed a fellow Marine.

The three-week inquiry was the first official investigation into an episode that American military officials now say appears to have been an unprovoked attack by the Marines that killed 24 Iraqi civilians. The results of Watt's investigation, which began Feb. 14, have not previously been disclosed.

"There were enough inconsistencies that things didn't add up," said the senior official who has been briefed on the conclusions of Watt's preliminary investigations.

The official agreed to discuss the findings only after being promised anonymity.

The findings have not been made public, and the Pentagon and the Marines have declined to discuss the details of inquiries now under way, saying that to do so could compromise the investigation.

When Watt described the findings on March 9 to Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the senior ground commander in Iraq, it raised enough questions about the Marines' veracity that Chiarelli referred the matter to the senior Marine commander in Iraq, who ordered a criminal investigation that officials say could result in murder charges being brought against members of the unit.

Watt's findings also prompted Chiarelli to order a parallel investigation into whether any senior Marine officers and enlisted personnel had attempted to cover up what happened.

Watt's inquiry included interviews with Marines involved in the killings as well as with senior officers in the unit, the 3rd Battalion of the 1st Marine Regiment.

Among them were Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, who officials had said was one of the senior noncommissioned officers on the patrol, and Lt. Col. Jeffrey R. Chessani, the battalion commander. Chessani was relieved of his command in April, after the unit returned from Iraq.

In their accounts to Watt, the Marines said they took gunfire from the first of five residences they entered near the bomb site, according to the senior military official.

The official said the Marines had recalled hearing "a weapon being prepared to be used against them."

Watt also reviewed payments totaling $38,000 in cash made within weeks of the incident to families of victims.

In an interview yesterday, Maj. Dana Hyatt, the officer who made the payments, said he was told by superiors to compensate the relatives of 15 victims but was told that eight of those killed had been deemed to have committed hostile acts, leaving their families ineligible for compensation.

After the initial payments were made, however, those family members demanded similar payments, insisting their relatives had not attacked the Marines, Hyatt said.

Hyatt said he was authorized by Chessani and by even more senior officers at the Marines' regimental headquarters to make the payments to relatives of 15 of the victims.

Hyatt said Chessani "was part of the chain of command that gives the approval. Even when he signs off on it, it still has to go up to" the unit's regimental headquarters.

The list of 15 victims deemed to be noncombatants was put together by intelligence personnel attached to the battalion, Hyatt said. All of them lived in two of the houses and were related to a member of the Haditha city council, he said.

Each victim was compensated with a $2,500 payment, the maximum allowed under Marine rules, to relatives, along with $250 payments for two children who were injured in the attack. Hyatt said he also compensated the families for damage to two houses.

The military began its examination of the killings in Haditha only after Time magazine, in late January, presented findings of their investigation to a military spokesman in Baghdad.

Chiarelli, an Army officer who had taken over command of American ground forces in Iraq in January, learned then that the Marines had not conducted an inquiry into the incident, according to the senior military official.

Yesterday, White House spokesman Tony Snow said President Bush first became aware of the episode after the Time magazine inquiry.

He said that Stephen Hadley, the national security adviser, briefed Bush upon news of it, an indication of the seriousness with which the episode was regarded by the White House.

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