Correction to This Article
Earlier versions of this story incorrectly identified Jeffrey R. Chessani as a lieutenant. He is a lieutenant colonel. This version has been corrected.

Drone's Video May Aid Marine Inquiry

Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) has said that Marine commanders may have covered up the deaths of 24 civilians in the Iraqi town of Haditha.
Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) has said that Marine commanders may have covered up the deaths of 24 civilians in the Iraqi town of Haditha. (By Linda Spillers -- Abc News Via Getty Images)
By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Military investigators piecing together what happened in the Iraqi town of Haditha on Nov. 19 -- when Marines allegedly killed two dozen civilians -- have access to video shot by an unmanned drone aircraft that was circling overhead for at least part of that day, military defense lawyers familiar with the case said in interviews.

It is unclear whether the video obtained from that day's flight captured the violence, said the lawyers, who have consulted with Marines who were there. One lawyer said investigators have reviewed surveillance footage taken hours after the shootings, which showed the Marines returning to the town to remove the bodies of the Iraqis.

Yesterday, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said charges will be issued against troops if the evidence merits it. For now, however, "it would be premature for me to judge" the outcome of the two U.S. military investigations, Pace said on CBS's "The Early Show." "We'll get to the bottom of the investigation and take the appropriate action."

Iraqis who say they witnessed the violence in Haditha have said U.S. troops shot men, women and children at close range in retaliation for the death of a Marine lance corporal in a roadside bombing. The two investigations -- one into the incident and another into allegations that military personnel tried to cover it up -- began this year after news reports challenged an early military statement that the civilians were killed in the bombing.

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.

In addition to video from the drone, investigators have records of radio message traffic between the Marines and a command center, said military defense lawyers who have discussed the investigation with Marines who were at Haditha but who have not yet been formally retained by them.

"There's a ton of information that isn't out there yet," said one lawyer, who, like the others, would speak only on the condition of anonymity because a potential client has not been charged. The radio message traffic, he said, will provide a different view of the incident than has been presented by Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) and other members of Congress. For example, he said, contrary to Murtha's account, it will show that the Marines came under small-arms fire after the roadside explosion.

Two of the lawyers said the message traffic will show officers in higher headquarters knew early on that a large number of civilians had been killed and that they did not raise alarms.

"The chain of command knew about it," said one, and "the number of deaths was reported" by the commander of the company involved, Capt. Lucas M. McConnell of Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion of the 1st Regiment of the 1st Marine Division.

Lt. Col. Scott Fazekas, a Marine spokesman, said yesterday he could not comment on the reports of drone-aircraft video or other aspects of the case because "the investigation isn't complete." Last month, the Marines relieved of command the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Jeffrey R. Chessani, as well as McConnell and another company commander, citing a lack of confidence in their leadership.

The presence of the drone is potentially significant because such surveillance craft are in high demand in Iraq and their use is supervised by senior officers -- which could indicate there was interest among higher officers about what was occurring in Haditha.

One of the military lawyers said Nov. 19 was the 3rd Battalion's "hottest day" in Iraq, and was unusually violent even for al Anbar Province, which is where the insurgency began and where it remains extremely active.

In addition to drone surveillance that day, AV-8 Harriers were dropping bombs, helicopters were evacuating wounded, and a large firefight occurred about one-third of a mile from the site of the civilian shootings, said several people familiar with the investigation.

Also yesterday, the Los Angeles Times reported that a Marine said he photographed at least 15 bodies after the attack, which he said he was not involved in. Lance Cpl. Roel Ryan Briones, the first member of the unit to speak publicly about the incident, told the newspaper that after he took the pictures he helped remove bodies, including that of a young girl who had been shot in the head.

Briones indicated that since returning home to Hanford, Calif., he has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from the corpses he saw and carried that day. "They ranged from little babies to adult males and females," the Times quoted him as saying.

Less than two days after coming home he was charged with stealing a pickup truck, leaving the scene of the accident, driving under the influence of alcohol and resisting arrest, the newspaper said.

Researchers Madonna Lebling and Julie Tate contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company