Courts-martial ordered in Haditha killings

Of eight Marines originally charged, two will go to trial

October 20, 2007|By Tony Perry | Tony Perry,Los Angeles Times

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. -- A Marine lieutenant colonel and a lance corporal have been ordered to stand trial on charges stemming from the killing of 24 civilians in Haditha, Iraq, in 2005, the Marine Corps announced yesterday.

Of eight initial defendants in the case, the two are the only ones who have been ordered to court-martial. The case constitutes the largest number of civilian deaths of any alleged abuse case involving Marines in Iraq.

Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani, a former battalion commander, will face a court-martial on charges of dereliction of duty and failing to obey a direct order in not ordering a full-scale investigation into whether the killings constituted a war crime.

Lance Cpl. Stephen Tatum will face charges of involuntary manslaughter, reckless endangerment and aggravated assault.

Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis, who made the court-martial decisions, followed the recommendation of a hearing officer and dismissed charges of murder against Tatum.

Four enlisted Marines were initially accused of murder in the case, but charges have now been dropped against two and remain pending against one. The fourth has been sent to court-martial. Of four officers initially charged with dereliction of duty, charges have been dropped against two, are pending against one, and the fourth has been sent to court-martial.

Chessani, 42, of Colorado, was commander of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment. Tatum, 26, of Edmond, Okla., was a veteran of the bloody fighting in Fallujah in late 2004.

Mattis, who will leave Camp Pendleton soon to assume another command, has yet to announce his decision about Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, who was the squad leader and initially charged with 12 counts of unpremeditated murder. A hearing officer has recommended that Wuterich face a lesser number of negligent homicide charges, but Mattis is not bound by the recommendation.

In fact, in sending Tatum to court-martial, Mattis rejected a recommendation by Lt. Col. Paul Ware, the hearing officer, to dismiss the entire case against Tatum.

During his preliminary hearing, Tatum made a tearful statement of regret for the deaths of Iraqi civilians but said he was only firing at "shapes" in a dimly lighted room and was unaware that there were women and children in the line of fire.

The Haditha incident began when a roadside bomb exploded beneath a Marine convoy, killing one Marine and injuring two. Marines suspected that the attack was part of the "coordinated, complex ambush" that intelligence officers had warned them that insurgents were planning.

Within minutes, Marines from other squads were engaged in firefights nearby.

Marines from the squad whose convoy was attacked began searching the area for the suspected triggermen. When a car came upon the scene, five young men were ordered out and fatally shot under circumstances that remain disputed.

Marines then killed 19 other Iraqis - including three women and seven children - while searching three houses for suspected insurgents.

No insurgents were found.

After only a cursory review, Marine officers, including a two-star general, concluded that the civilian killings, while tragic, were the result of a battle between Marines and insurgents.

But months later Time magazine published an article that quoted Iraqis as disputing the Marines' version and suggesting the Marines had gone on a vengeful rampage. In response, the military launched investigations.

Tony Perry writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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