Officer Called Haditha Routine

By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 19, 2006

The Marine officer who commanded the battalion involved in the Haditha killings last November did not consider the deaths of 24 Iraqis, many of them women and children, unusual and did not initiate an inquiry, according to a sworn statement he gave to military investigators in March.

"I thought it was very sad, very unfortunate, but at the time, I did not suspect any wrongdoing from my Marines," Lt. Col. Jeffrey R. Chessani, commander of the 3rd Battalion of the 1st Marines, said in the statement.

"I did not have any reason to believe that this was anything other than combat action," he added.

Chessani's statement, provided to The Washington Post by a person sympathetic to the enlisted Marines involved in the case, helps explain why there was no investigation of the incident at the time, despite the large number of civilian deaths, and why it took several months for the U.S. military chain of command to react to the event.

It also provides a glimpse of the mind-set of a commander on the scene who, despite the carnage, did not stop to consider whether Marines had crossed a line and killed defenseless civilians.

It suggests that top U.S. commanders have been unsuccessful in urging subordinate leaders to focus less on killing insurgents and more on winning the support of the Iraqi people, especially by providing them security.

Chessani told investigators he concluded that insurgents had staged a "complex attack" that began with a roadside bomb, followed by a small-arms ambush that was intended to provoke the Marines to fire into houses where civilians were hiding.

"I did not see any cause for alarm," especially because several firefights had occurred in the area the same day -- Nov. 19, 2005 -- Chessani said. Because of that conclusion, the commander added, he did not see any reason to investigate the matter, or even to ask how many women and children had been killed. "I just saw this as a large combat action that had been staged by the enemy," he told investigators.

The Haditha incident first attracted notice when Time magazine reported in March that the official U.S. account attributing most of the Iraqi deaths to a roadside bomb was incorrect, and that the Iraqis instead had been killed by U.S. troops. It became more controversial in May when Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), who had been briefed by top Marine officers, said at a news conference that what happened in Haditha was "much worse than reported in Time magazine" and that Marines had "killed innocent civilians in cold blood."

Commentators likened the incident to the Vietnam War's My Lai massacre and predicted that it would damage the U.S. effort in Iraq more than the Abu Ghraib detainee abuse scandal had.

Several Marines are under criminal investigation in connection with the incident. Their lawyers have indicated they intend to argue that those Marines followed the rules of engagement during a difficult day on a chaotic battlefield.

Defense lawyers involved in the case said Friday that they have been told that a criminal inquiry by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service concluded about two weeks ago, and that military prosecutors are working on charges that may be brought next month.

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