Marine commanders learned within two days of the killings in Haditha


Richard Moore

    ³...the handling of the matter by the senior Marine
    commanders in Haditha, and whether officers and enlisted
    personnel tried to cover up what happened or missed signs
    suggesting that the civilian killings were not accidental,
    has become a major element of the investigation by an Army
    general into the entire episode.²

Original source URL:

June 3, 2006
Initial Response to Marine Raid Draws Scrutiny

WASHINGTON, June 2 ‹ Marine commanders in Iraq learned within two days of the 
killings in Haditha last November that Iraqi civilians had died from gunfire, 
not a roadside bomb as initially reported, but the officers involved saw no 
reason to investigate further, according to a senior Marine officer.

The commanders have told investigators they had not viewed as unusual, in a 
combat environment, the discrepancies that emerged almost immediately in 
accounts about how the two dozen Iraqis died, and that they had no information 
at the time suggesting that any civilians had been killed deliberately.

But the handling of the matter by the senior Marine commanders in Haditha, and 
whether officers and enlisted personnel tried to cover up what happened or 
missed signs suggesting that the civilian killings were not accidental, has 
become a major element of the investigation by an Army general into the entire 

Officials have said that the investigation, while not yet complete, is likely to
conclude that a small group of marines carried out the unprovoked killings of 
two dozen civilians in the hours after a makeshift bomb killed a marine.

A senior Marine general familiar with the investigation, which is being led by 
Maj. Gen. Eldon A. Bargewell of the Army, said in an interview that it had not 
yet established how high up the chain of command culpability for the killings 
extended. But he said there were strong suspicions that some officers knew that 
the Marine squad's version of events had enough holes and discrepancies that it 
should have been looked into more deeply.

"It's impossible to believe they didn't know," the Marine general said, 
referring to midlevel and senior officers. "You'd have to know this thing 
stunk." He was granted anonymity, along with others who described the 
investigation, because he was not authorized to speak publicly about it.

In recent weeks, investigators have interviewed the Marine commanders who were 
serving in Iraq at the time of the killings, including Maj. Gen. Stephen T. 
Johnson, commander of the Second Marine Expeditionary Force in Iraq, and Maj. 
Gen. Richard A. Huck, commander of the Second Marine Division, a senior Pentagon
adviser said.

Military officials said Friday that interviews with all senior officers in the 
chain of command were a routine part of any wide-ranging inquiry, and did not 
necessarily indicate culpability on their part.

But even before the investigation is completed, the Marine Corps commandant, 
Gen. Michael Hagee, is considering relieving some senior Marine commanders who 
served in Iraq at the time of the killings, the Pentagon adviser said, citing 
what the adviser called a "loss of confidence" in those officers.

General Hagee has not decided whether to relieve any of the officers in 
positions of command, and was said to be weighing whether such a move would 
damage morale and be seen as prejudging the outcome of the investigation.

Lt. Col. Scott Fazekas, a Marine spokesman, said he had "no information" about 
the possibility of officers being relieved.

On Friday, in a visit to Camp Lejeune, N.C., where the Second Marine 
Expeditionary Force is based, General Hagee addressed a gathering of marines on 
compliance with international laws of armed conflict and the military's rules of

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, speaking at a security conference in 
Singapore, cautioned that inquiries and any possible cover-up were still under 
review. "We'll soon know the answers," Mr. Rumsfeld said.

Another officer, who served with the Second Marine Expeditionary Force in Iraq 
and has been questioned by investigators, said in an interview that he recalled 
nothing in the reports on the Nov. 19 killings that indicated marines had acted 
improperly after their convoy was hit that morning by a roadside bomb.

He acknowledged that the initial reports from the field indicated inaccurately 
that noncombatants were killed in the bomb explosion. The Marines also issued a 
press release the day after the killings that said 15 Iraqi civilians had died 
in the bomb blast and 8 insurgents had been killed in an ensuing firefight.

Yet debriefings on Nov. 20 gave rise to another version of events. Marines at 
the site said that the civilians had been killed by cross-fire during a 
firefight with suspected insurgents, the officials said.

Investigators have since come to the view that 24 civilians died, apparently 
from shots fired at them by Americans, and not as random victims of stray 
bullets in a gunfight.

But the senior officer said, "On the 19th and 20th of November, there was no 
information to indicate there was a law of war violation."

The fact that Iraqis were killed by gunfire, not by the bomb explosion, did not 
raise any red flags because marines were saying that insurgents had been firing 
at them after the bomb went off, he said. In addition, the bomb attack that 
morning was followed by a series of other insurgent attacks that day, further 
confusing the situation.

In retrospect, he said, it might have been advisable to correct the inaccurate 
press release, but the Marines did not consider doing that then. Investigators 
have been examining whether there were signs of a cover-up by marines that 
senior officers missed or ignored, including the circumstances of the shooting 
of five Iraqi men in a taxi shortly after the roadside bomb exploded.

In interviews with Col. Gregory Watt of the Army, who conducted a preliminary 
inquiry into the killings, the marines maintained they gave hand and arm 
signals, directing the taxi approaching their position to stop, according to a 
military official in Iraq who was briefed on the colonel's report.

Seconds later, the marines said, the bomb exploded. Fearing that the car's 
occupants either detonated the explosive or acted as spotters for those who did,
the marines ordered the five men who were getting out of the car to stop and lie
down on the ground.

Instead, the five men ‹ four students and a driver ‹ turned and ran, and the 
marines shot them, the troops told Colonel Watt.

But the investigator pressed the marines: if none of the Iraqi men had weapons 
and none had threatened the marines, why did the troops shoot them? The marines 
did not have a convincing reply, said the official who was briefed on the 

Along with General Bargewell's inquiry, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service
is investigating whether criminal charges should be brought against the marines 
involved. Investigators in that inquiry have confiscated 12 weapons from the 
Marine squad that carried out the killings, the Marine general said.

But he added that the process of matching weapons with bullets in bodies had 
been delayed because families of the Iraqi victims were refusing to exhume the 

John Kifner contributed reporting from Buffalo for this article.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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