Death Toll Rises in Haditha Attack, GOP Leader Says

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 20, 2006

Forthcoming military investigations into alleged war crimes in Iraq will show that a squad of U.S. Marines killed about 24 Iraqi civilians, including women and children, while on a patrol in Haditha in November -- a higher number than first believed -- and then gave inaccurate reports on the incident to their commanders, a congressional Republican said yesterday.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) said his panel will hold oversight hearings on the two investigations -- a probe by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service to be complete in June, and a second report by a two-star Army general expected next week -- to ensure they are "undertaken by the military with integrity."

In an indication of the gravity of the charges, Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the second highest-ranking U.S. commander in Iraq, talks almost daily with investigators and will recommend further action based on what they find, Hunter said after being briefed by Chiarelli.

"We took these allegations very, very seriously," Chiarelli said yesterday in a videoconference from Baghdad. Chiarelli launched an investigation four days after a Time magazine reporter brought the charges to the attention of his headquarters in February. Chiarelli declined to comment when asked whether the latest investigations turned up different information than the military originally released.

A preliminary military investigation completed in March found that on Nov. 19 insurgents attacked a Marine convoy near Haditha in Iraq's violent Anbar province with a roadside bomb, killing Marine Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas, 20, of El Paso. It said insurgents then opened fire on the Marines from several locations, and during the battle, eight insurgents and 15 civilians were killed, including women and children.

But earlier this week, Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) said the incident was "much worse" and had involved no firefight or roadside bomb that killed civilians. "Our troops overreacted because of the pressure on them, and they killed innocent civilians in cold blood," said Murtha, who seeks a rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

Hunter also indicated yesterday that new facts had emerged on the number of civilian deaths and unfolding of events, but said he would not preempt the investigation and say that murders were committed. "I think we're going to see those [deaths] in the neighborhood of 20 or so people," he said. A statement from his committee put the number at "about 24."

"The initial reports, obviously, that came up through the command didn't . . . tell the story," he said. The military's original Nov. 20 statement said an insurgent bomb had killed the civilians and Marine.

The Marines agreed to allow a two-star Army general, Maj. Gen. Eldon Bargewell, to conduct an "outside investigation" rather than have the Marine chain of command investigate itself. Hunter likened it to an independent counsel who would scrutinize actions not only of the Marine infantry squad but also up to the level of Marine generals.

Three Marine officers -- a lieutenant colonel and two captains -- whose 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment was involved in the incident, were relieved of command in April as a result of questions about their leadership. None has been charged in the incident.

Hunter strongly disagreed with Murtha's statement that undue stress on the Marines contributed to the killings. "I totally reject that," he said, adding that the actions of a single squad should not reflect negatively on the rest of the troops engaged in Iraq or their mission. "There has been no war in our history in which you didn't have incidents in which people did the wrong thing at one time or another," he said. No one should "tar the honorable service of 922,000 brave Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan with the reported actions of one squad in one city on one morning," he said.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company