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.
A separate review of decisions by Marine officers, including Chessani and his superiors, was conducted by Army Maj. Gen. Eldon A. Bargewell. The findings of his investigation, which concluded many weeks ago, has not been released, but people familiar with its contents have said that he found multiple failures by Marine leaders in the training they mandated, in the tone they set and in how information was reported up the chain of command.
Chessani's statement, which was given at a base in Iraq starting at midnight on March 20, is the first formal evidence to emerge in the case. Until now, media reports contain accounts provided by Iraqis and Marines rather than those from official documents produced by the investigatory process.
The statement provides the first public look at comments from a key commander who oversaw the action there and bolsters the defense argument that troops involved in the Haditha incident saw the events as part of the normal course of combat.
Chessani has not made any public comments about the case. He waived his rights when he provided the statement and did not ask for an attorney, though he had the right to do so. He was told at the outset of the questioning that he was suspected of dereliction of his duty.
Chessani was relieved of command about three weeks after he gave his statement, in early April, soon after his battalion returned to its home base at Camp Pendleton, Calif. It is not clear whether he has retained defense counsel. He could not be reached for comment by telephone Friday and did not respond to e-mails.
Chessani said in his statement that when he was first informed by a military investigator that Marines under his command may have intentionally killed civilians, "the allegations seemed baseless." But the investigator then told him, he said, that "we had killed civilians and did not have positive identification in this instance. . . . He described it that we had made entries into rooms and shot women and children. He believed, if I recall right, that some of the rooms, some of the houses that we entered, the Marines weren't being fired at at the time."
After the killings, the Marine Corps issued a statement that Iraqis had been killed in Haditha by a roadside bomb. Chessani said that he did not see the statement then, and that the first time he read it was when an investigator showed it to him about three months later.
"I knew this was inaccurate when I saw it," he stated. The Marine Corps has not issued a retraction, saying the entire matter is under investigation.
At one point, Col. John Ewers, the Marine lawyer who took the statement, seemed almost exasperated with Chessani's passive approach to the incident. Using a profanity, he told Chessani his own reaction was "15 civilians dead, 23 or 24 total dead, with no real indication of how it was that we arrived at the enemy KIA number."
Ewers asked: "Did it occur to you that you needed to do an investigation simply so you could go to the locals and say, 'This was righteous'? . . . And be confident that you were speaking with certainty?"
Chessani responded: "Sir, I did not think about it like that. . . . Enemy has picked the place, he had picked the time, and the location for a reason. . . . [H]e wanted to make us look bad."