Coverup of Iraq Incident By Marines Is Alleged

By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 29, 2006

A powerful member of Congress alleged yesterday that there has been a conscious effort by Marine commanders to cover up the facts of a November incident in which rampaging Marines allegedly killed 24 Iraqi civilians.

"There has to have been a coverup of this thing," Rep. John P. Murtha (Pa.), ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, charged in an interview on ABC's "This Week." "No question about it."

John W. Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, also raised the issue of whether the military chain of command reacted properly and legally.

"There is this serious question . . . of what happened and when it happened, and what was the immediate reaction of the senior officers in the Marine Corps when they began to gain knowledge of it," he said on the same program. He added, "That is seriously a question that is going to be examined."

Warner said he intends to hold hearings on the Haditha incident as soon as he can without interfering with the prosecution of criminal charges, which are expected to be brought this summer.

Iraqi witnesses in Haditha, an Upper Euphrates Valley farm town, say the Americans shot men, women and children on Nov. 19 at close range in retaliation for the death of a Marine lance corporal in a roadside bombing.

Two U.S. military inquiries began earlier this year after Time magazine presented military officials in Baghdad with the findings of its own investigation, based on survivors' accounts and on a videotape shot by an Iraqi journalism student at Haditha's hospital and inside victims' houses. People familiar with the case say they expect that charges of murder, dereliction of duty and making a false statement will be brought against several Marines.

Murtha, who like Warner is a former Marine, said that there was a preliminary investigation by the military but that "it was stifled." Until Time's report appeared in March, four months after the incident, he said, "There was no serious investigation."

Murtha said he understands the stress being put on Marines fighting in western Iraq's turbulent Anbar province: "The pressure builds every time they go out," with roadside bombs exploding "every day they go out."

But, he said, "I will not excuse murder, and this is what has happened," adding that there is "no question in my mind about it." He reiterated a previous statement that shootings of women and children occurred "in cold blood" and that there was no firefight in which civilians were killed in a crossfire, as some Marines asserted after the event.

"This is worse than Abu Ghraib," he said, referring to the abuse of Iraqi detainees by U.S. soldiers at a prison west of Baghdad that, when revealed in spring 2004, became a major setback for the U.S. effort in Iraq.

Murtha was most emphatic in discussing his belief that senior Marine officers acted to prevent the facts of the case from emerging. "The problem is, who covered up? And why did they cover it up?" he asked. He said an investigation should have been conducted immediately after the incident, with the facts disclosed to the public at that time.

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