Top Marine Visits Iraq as Probe of Deaths Widens

By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 26, 2006

The commandant of the Marine Corps flew to Iraq to address his troops yesterday, and members of the Senate Armed Services Committee were briefed on allegations that Marines had purposely killed as many as two dozen Iraqi civilians in November.

The two developments were indications of the growing seriousness of two investigations into the incident in Haditha that has led to charges from a congressman that Marines killed civilians "in cold blood."

"When these investigations come out, there's going to be a firestorm," said retired Brig. Gen. David M. Brahms, formerly a top lawyer for the Marine Corps. "It will be worse than Abu Ghraib -- nobody was killed at Abu Ghraib."

An Army lawyer who has heard some accounts of the investigation said, "It's a lot more serious than people thought at the beginning. It's really bad timing," coming as the repercussions of the Abu Ghraib detainee abuse scandal are waning, he added. He requested anonymity because he is on active duty and not authorized to be interviewed.

If so, the case is likely to make it more difficult for the Bush administration to bolster support for the war.

Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, was briefed Wednesday by Gen. Michael W. Hagee, the Marine commandant, and again yesterday by Brig. Gen. John Kelly, the legislative liaison for the Corps. Warner described the case as consisting of "very, very serious allegations" that resulted in "a significant loss of life, civilian."

Hagee flew to Iraq yesterday "to reinforce the ideals, values and standards" of the Corps, the Marines said. "There is a risk of becoming indifferent to the loss of a human life, as well as bringing dishonor on ourselves," Hagee said in a statement announcing his trip. "We do not employ force just for the sake of employing force."

Two military investigations of events in Haditha are expected to be completed soon, and charges could be brought by late June, according to a person familiar with some aspects of the case. A civilian lawyer tracking the case said he has heard from Marine contacts that there could be as many as a dozen court-martial proceedings.

At issue is what occurred on Nov. 19, 2005, after a Marine convoy was allegedly hit by a roadside bomb, killing Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas. An initial inquiry found that 15 civilians were killed in the crossfire of a subsequent Marine firefight with insurgents.

In April, the Marine Corps relieved Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani of his command of the 3rd Battalion of the 1st Marine Regiment, the unit involved in the incident. Two of his company commanders were also relieved of command. The 1st Marine Regiment is part of the 1st Marine Division and is based at Camp Pendleton, Calif., just north of San Diego.

Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) said last week that there was neither a bomb nor a firefight, and that 24 civilians had been killed "in cold blood."

"It's much worse than reported," said Murtha, who like Warner is a former Marine and maintains close ties with senior Marine officers despite his vigorous opposition to the war.

Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), a retired Marine helicopter pilot, said in an interview he thought Hagee was doing the right thing.

"I was saddened, surprised and outraged that this could happen," Kline said. He said he thought the incident would be regarded as "a horrific aberration" for the Marines.

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