By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 24, 2006
A sergeant who examined the scene hours after Marines killed two dozen Iraqis in Haditha last year said the shootings appeared to be an appropriate response to a coordinated insurgent attack, according to a sworn statement obtained by The Washington Post.
Sgt. J.M. Laughner, part of a Marine human-intelligence exploitation team that was hunting down insurgent bombmakers, went from house to house in Haditha on Nov. 19, 2005, and acknowledged finding two dozen bodies, including some of women and small children.
But Laughner said the scenes of the slayings appeared to match the version of events the Marine squad provided that day and did not seem especially out of the ordinary, according to a transcript of Laughner's interview with military investigators in March.
Laughner's account supports the argument made by some Marines in Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines -- that they believed they were following their rules of engagement when they opened fire on groups of people inside at least three homes after a roadside bomb killed a member of their unit. Several Marines are under criminal investigation in connection with the civilian deaths that day, but no one has been charged.
Laughner's statement, although just one viewpoint, is further evidence that Marines who were on the ground that day viewed the civilian deaths as accidental rather than the result of a vengeful rampage.
The transcript was provided to The Post by someone who is sympathetic to the enlisted Marines facing scrutiny for the shootings, which Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) has characterized as a coldblooded massacre. Laughner's full name is not used in the interview, and efforts to locate the Marine yesterday by telephone were unsuccessful. It is not clear whether Laughner has an attorney.
In a 34-minute interview with two colonels, Laughner described taking pictures of each of the bodies while moving from room to room in three houses, as the Marines described what happened in each circumstance. The Marines told Laughner they had taken fire from the houses and believed they heard people "racking AK-47s" -- preparing to fire the automatic weapons.
The Marines then "cleared" the rooms using fragmentation grenades and rifle shots. Two other accounts given by lawyers for Marines in the unit are consistent with the version Laughner heard from the Marines involved in the incident on Nov. 19.
Laughner also said that 30 Jordanian passports and large amounts of cash were found in a home near the shooting scenes.
One investigator asked Laughner if there was anything about the number of civilian victims or the circumstances of the casualties that gave reason to pause and "say jeez."
"Any time you see women and children, sir, I thought that," Laughner said. "But from what the Marines had told me and from what I understood from them, that I can't say I wouldn't have done the same thing in their situation. If I hear somebody racking AK rounds, and I don't know how many guys are there, I'm going to protect me and my guys."
Laughner also said that leaders within the Marine company were informed almost immediately about the casualty count, and that battalion officers were also made aware of the situation quickly. According to a similar transcript disclosed in The Post last week, Lt. Col. Jeffrey R. Chessani, commander of the 3rd Battalion of the 1st Marines, told investigators that he viewed the civilian deaths as "very unfortunate" but did not suspect wrongdoing.
The colonels interviewing Laughner focused several questions on a white vehicle that approached the Marine convoy just after the roadside blast. The car, which has been a significant subject in both an investigation of leadership failures and the ongoing criminal probe, could figure prominently in any charges lodged against the Marines.
Laughner said five military-age men appeared to have been killed as they ran from the vehicle, which stopped in the middle of the road near the convoy -- a spot that could be considered threatening.
"It made sense, that they had ran out of the car and then they engaged," Laughner said. When asked if anyone ever hinted that the situation that day was considered inappropriate or if something bad had happened, Laughner answered: "No, just that a Marine died. That is the only bad thing."
Staff writer Thomas E. Ricks contributed to this report.