Army apology to Afghans called mistake

May 18, 2007|By Peter Spiegel | Peter Spiegel,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- The Marine Corps' top general said yesterday that a senior Army officer was wrong to apologize to the families of the 19 Afghan civilians killed and the 50 injured by Marines in March because investigators have yet to determine whether any wrongdoing occurred.

Gen. James T. Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps, said Army Col. John Nicholson should not have issued the apology last week, particularly because he is a brigade commander in Afghanistan, which puts him in the chain of command that might be asked to decide whether charges should be brought against the Marines.

Conway said during a Pentagon news conference that he felt it was proper to pay condolence allowances, called solatia, to the families but that the apology, in which Nicholson said he was "deeply, deeply ashamed" by the "terrible, terrible mistake" made by the Marines, went too far.

"He's not wrong to make solatia payments," Conway said, referring to the payouts of $2,000 for each death. "But I would just as soon that no one at this point, in any chain of command, apologize or talk about `terrible, terrible mistakes' or those types of wrongdoings. I think it's just premature."

An Army spokesman could not be reached concerning Nicholson's response to Conway's remarks.

Nicholson issued the apology to the Afghan families two months after the March 4 incident, in which a Marine special forces unit reportedly opened fire on a group of Afghans after its convoy was struck by a roadside bomb.

Shortly after the incident, the unit was ordered to leave the country, and Army Gen. Frank H. Kearney III, head of special operations in the Middle East, ordered a criminal investigation of the incident, which continues.

Nicholson said he apologized because keeping civilians on the side of the U.S.-led coalition was essential in combating the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan.

Peter Spiegel writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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