General says Marine officers negligent in probing killings

Unspecified discipline recommended

24 Iraqi civilians were killed

July 08, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON --The second-ranking U.S. commander in Iraq has concluded that some senior Marine officers were negligent in failing to investigate more aggressively the killings of 24 Iraqi civilians by Marines in Haditha in November, two Defense Department officials said yesterday.

The officer, Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, concluded that senior officers failed to follow up on inaccuracies and inconsistencies in the initial reporting of the deaths - including those of 10 women and children and an elderly man in a wheelchair - that should have raised questions.

Chiarelli faulted the senior staff of the 2nd Marine Division, commanded at the time by Maj. Gen. Richard A. Huck, and the 2nd Regimental Combat Team, then headed by Col. Stephen W. Davis.

He recommended unspecified discipline of some officers, said the two defense officials, who had been briefed on Chiarelli's findings. They said they would discuss the report, after being promised anonymity, because it showed that the military is taking such incidents seriously and fully investigates them.

Chiarelli "concludes that some officers were derelict in their duties," said one of the officials, who declined to identify which officers or how many were singled out.

If Marine commanders are found to have been negligent in pursuing the matter, the punishment could range from an admonishment to a court-martial that could end an officer's military career.

It was not clear yesterday whether Huck, Davis or Maj. Gen. Stephen T. Johnson, the senior Marine officer in Iraq at the time of the killings, would be implicated. If they are disciplined, they will be among the most senior U.S. officers punished since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

"We're all waiting anxiously to see how this one gets taken on," said an officer who was serving in Iraq with the 2nd Marine Division at the time of the killings in Haditha, referring to the possibility of disciplinary action against officers in the division. "Major General Huck is about as thorough and detailed a guy as you are ever going to see."

The officer, who is not authorized to talk about the unit or any part of the investigation, noted that a spate of recent cases in which U.S. troops are being investigated in the deaths of unarmed Iraqi civilians - including the rape and killing of a young Iraqi woman and the killing of her family in Mahmoudiya - has raised concerns that commanders might be under pressure to make an example of Marine officers in the Haditha incident.

In a brief statement issued from Iraq yesterday, Chiarelli's headquarters said he had finished reviewing a lengthy investigation by Maj. Gen. Eldon A. Bargewell of the Army into the actions or failures to act of Marine leaders in Haditha and the training that Marines had received and the command climate their superiors had fostered.

The statement gave no details of Chiarelli's findings or recommendations, which will be sent to his boss, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top commander in Iraq.

A senior Pentagon official said it could be several days before Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld receives a complete briefing on the matter and before an edited version of Chiarelli's findings is made public.

In addition to Chiarelli's review, a separate inquiry by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service is examining whether crimes were committed when a squad of Marines killed the 24 Iraqi civilians after a roadside bomb killed a Marine early on the morning of Nov. 19.

Since the military inquiries into the Haditha killings began, the accounts of some Marines involved and their lawyers have conflicted in important details with descriptions of what investigators have found, officials familiar with their findings have said.

After the roadside bomb went off, Marines who survived the explosion said, they thought they were under sustained attack and that they were entitled under their rules of engagement to use lethal force as they searched surrounding houses for those they considered responsible for the bombing.

Investigators and townspeople have told reporters that the Marines overreacted to a fatal roadside bombing and shot the civilians, only one of whom was armed, in cold blood. The 24 Iraqis killed included five men in a taxi and 19 other civilians in several houses.

Investigators have concluded that most of the victims in three houses were killed by well-aimed rifle shots, not shrapnel or random fire, according to military officials familiar with the initial findings.

The houses where the killings took place show no evidence of the room-clearing assault described by the Marines and their lawyers, the officials said.

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