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Officers Not a Target of Iraq Death Probe

By THOMAS WATKINS
The Associated Press
Wednesday, May 31, 2006; 1:03 AM

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. -- Three officers relieved of command from a Marine battalion are not targets of investigations into whether their troops killed as many as two dozen Iraqi civilians and tried to cover it up, the attorney for one of the officers said Tuesday.

Capt. James Kimber learned about the deaths only after the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment returned from Iraq in March, attorney Paul Hackett said.

Separate investigations seek to determine whether the Nov. 19 killings in the western Iraqi city of Haditha were criminal and whether the Marines involved and their commanding officers tried to hide the truth.

The Pentagon has said little publicly. What is known is that a military convoy hit a roadside bomb, killing one Marine. The Marine Corps had initially attributed 15 civilian deaths to the bombing and a firefight with insurgents, eight of whom the Marines reported had been killed.

Rep. John Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat and decorated war veteran who has been briefed by military officials, has said Marines shot and killed unarmed civilians in a taxi at the scene and went into two homes and shot others.

On Tuesday, White House spokesman Tony Snow said President Bush learned of the killings only after a reporter from Time magazine asked questions. Time published an article in March that said the Pentagon was investigating the incident.

Meanwhile, Lance Cpl. James Crossan of North Bend, Wash., who was injured in the roadside bomb attack in Haditha, told a Seattle television station that some of the Marines might have snapped after seeing one of their own killed in action.

"So, I think they were just blinded by hate ... and they just lost control," Crossan told KING-TV, which aired the interview Tuesday.

The targets of the investigations are about a dozen enlisted Marines, according to Hackett, a Marine reservist and Iraqi war veteran who represents Kimber.

Hackett, who last year narrowly lost a special election for a U.S. House seat in Ohio, said the highest ranking among those under investigation is a staff sergeant who led the four-vehicle convoy that was hit by the bomb.

Kimber, who was nominated for a Bronze Star for valor in Haditha, was relieved of command last month because his subordinates in the battalion's Lima Company used profanity and criticized the performance of Iraqi security services during an interview with Britain's Sky News TV, Hackett said.

"My purpose is to separate his name from the alleged war crimes that took place," Hackett told The Associated Press by telephone. "He's not under investigation for anything related to what has played out in the press."

The Pentagon has named two others who were relieved of command: Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani, the commander of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, and Capt. Lucas McConnell, who commanded Kilo Company, which was implicated in the killings.

Hackett does not represent either man but said that neither was present for the shootings and that he believes neither is a target of the investigations.

Like all Marines, Chessani and McConnell were taught that commanders accept responsibility for the failure of their subordinates, Hackett said.

"That's different than being criminally negligible or criminally responsible for the criminal actions of your subordinates," he said.

McConnell refused to speak with an AP reporter who visited his home near Camp Pendleton on Monday night. Chessani did not return a phone call seeking comment.

In his first statement on the case, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Tuesday expressed remorse over the deaths of the civilians.

"It is not justifiable that a family is killed because someone is fighting terrorists; we have to be more specific and more careful," al-Maliki told the British Broadcasting Corp. through an interpreter.

___

Associated Press writers Seth Hettena in San Diego and Erica Werner in Washington contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Associated Press