By Thomas E. Ricks and Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, June 8, 2006
The commandant of the Marine Corps said yesterday that he is "gravely concerned" about allegations that Marines killed more than two dozen civilians in two separate incidents in Iraq, but declined to offer any details about the cases while investigations are ongoing.
Gen. Michael W. Hagee appeared before reporters to discuss how seriously the Marines are taking the investigations into civilian deaths in Haditha and Hamdaniya, but shed no new light on what might have happened or where the investigations stand. During about 10 minutes of questioning, Hagee said he is waiting for investigations to conclude before making any judgments.
"I'm concerned any time that there are allegations that we . . . may have not done the right thing, whether it was on the battlefield or up the chain of command, and that's why we're investigating both of those allegations," Hagee said.
The slayings in Haditha have garnered significant attention in part because the Marines at first portrayed the deaths of 24 people near the scene of a roadside bomb as coming in a Nov. 19 insurgent attack on a group of Marine vehicles. Iraqis at the scene have described a massacre that included Marines going door to door shooting men, women and children after the bomb killed a member of their unit.
Since an initial report describing 15 civilians killed in the bomb blast in November, the Marines have not issued a statement to correct that report. Neither have they offered an alternative description of events.
Col. David Lapan, a top Marine spokesman at the Pentagon, said after Hagee's briefing that it does not make sense for the Marines to correct the initial release until all the facts are uncovered.
"Until we know the facts, what are we going to say?" Lapan said.
Hagee said he has seen photographs related to the investigation -- images that reportedly show victims of the Haditha attack -- but he declined to talk about them.
"If it turns out that an individual violated rules or regulations, he will be held accountable, regardless of grade or position," Hagee said. When asked if he would consider resigning as acknowledgment of leadership failures, Hagee said he serves at the pleasure of the president, "and I have not submitted any resignation."
A congressman briefed Tuesday on the deaths said he does not believe that senior officers were involved in any coverup.
Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest (R-Md.) said that after an hour-long meeting with a Marine general, he came away believing that "I don't think this [the alleged coverup of the incident] was very high at all." He said it is a "fair conclusion" that the headquarters of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force, the top command in Iraq at the time, was not informed about what happened at Haditha until sometime later -- and when it was, it acted quickly.
That conclusion supports an assertion by an officer who was the senior Marine lawyer in Iraq. In a recent interview, he said that he became aware of the allegations that Marines had killed a group of civilians at Haditha only when he read about it in Time magazine four months after the incident.
"If there was an allegation of abuse, we'd obviously investigate it," Col. Robert G. Kelly, who until recently was the staff judge advocate for 2nd MEF headquarters, said over the weekend. "Normal procedure would be that we would receive information of an allegation of abuse, and an officer would look into it, or if it was bad, NCIS [the Naval Criminal Investigative Service] would investigate it."
But, he said, in the Haditha case "the information was never made available to us." If his assertion is borne out by two military investigations underway, it would indicate that any coverup was at a lower level.
A Pentagon official said last week that the effort to disguise the event began when a squad leader made a false statement to superiors about the roadside bombing.
As members of Congress and others have revealed details in recent weeks, the Nov. 19 incident has grown into a major embarrassment for the Marine Corps and the U.S. government.
The review of how Marine leaders handled the incident was headed by Army Maj. Gen. Eldon A. Bargewell, whose report was given last week to Army Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq. Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), a former Marine who met with Chiarelli in Iraq over the weekend, said in an interview that Bargewell's report is "much bigger than a phone book," but that he has not read it. Chiarelli said he wants to compare Bargewell's findings with those of the NCIS to ensure it is thorough, Kline said.
That parallel criminal investigation will not be finished until this summer but could result in charges against several Marines of homicide, making a false statement and dereliction of duty, a defense official said last week. Also, three officers have been relieved of their command.
The Hamdaniya incident involves allegations that a separate group of Marines in western Iraq killed a man on April 26, then tried to make it look as if the victim had been planting a makeshift bomb.
Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.