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.
Instead, he said, the Marine Corps issued a statement that falsely asserted that the Iraqis had been killed in the initial bomb blast. The Marines knew that was not true, he said, because they issued payments to the families of the dead, which are made only to compensate for accidental deaths inflicted by U.S. troops.
"We know the Iraqis knew about it, because they [the Marines] made payments to the Iraqis for accidental deaths," he said.
The Denver Post reported yesterday that $38,000 was paid to relatives in Haditha. Mike Coffman, the Colorado state treasurer who served in Iraq recently as a Marine reservist, told the newspaper that the amount was relatively large, and so indicated that the Marines knew that something had gone wrong in the operation in the town that day.
"We don't know how far it goes," Murtha said of the alleged coverup. "The Marines knew about it all this time. Somebody in the chain of command decided not to allow this to happen. How far up it went, I don't know."
Asked about Murtha's charges, Lt. Col. Scott Fazekas, a Marine Corps spokesman, said: "The investigation isn't complete, so it isn't appropriate for me to comment."
Murtha also talked about a more recent allegation against a separate group of Marines in western Iraq accused of killing an Iraqi man and then trying to make it look as if the victim had been planting a makeshift bomb. "A Marine, or some Marines, pulled somebody out of a house, put them next to an IED [improvised explosive device] thing, fired some AKs so they'd have cartridges there, and then tried to cover that up," Murtha said.
The case concerns a man killed April 26 near Fallujah. The U.S. military disclosed the case in a statement Wednesday, sent after midnight Baghdad time, saying local Iraqi leaders had brought the killing to the attention of the U.S. military and it is under criminal investigation by the military. Several Marines assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, have been recalled to their base at Camp Pendleton, Calif., in that investigation.
Correspondent Ellen Knickmeyer in Baghdad contributed to this report.