Homicide Charges Rare in Iraq War

Chief Warrant Officer Lewis E. Welshofer Jr., an interrogator, was found guilty of negligent homicide in the 2003 death of an Iraqi former general.
Chief Warrant Officer Lewis E. Welshofer Jr., an interrogator, was found guilty of negligent homicide in the 2003 death of an Iraqi former general. (By Mark Reis -- Colorado Springs Gazette Via Associated Press)
By Josh White, Charles Lane and Julie Tate
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, August 28, 2006

The majority of U.S. service members charged in the unlawful deaths of Iraqi civilians have been acquitted, found guilty of relatively minor offenses or given administrative punishments without trials, according to a Washington Post review of concluded military cases. Charges against some of the troops were dropped completely.

Though experts estimate that thousands of Iraqi civilians have died at the hands of U.S. forces, only 39 service members were formally accused in connection with the deaths of 20 Iraqis from 2003 to early this year. Twenty-six of the 39 troops were initially charged with murder, negligent homicide or manslaughter; 12 of them ultimately served prison time for any offense.

Some military officials and analysts say the small numbers reflect the caution and professionalism exercised by U.S. forces on an urban battlefield where it is often difficult to distinguish combatants from civilians. Others argue the statistics illustrate commanders' reluctance to investigate and hold troops accountable when they take the lives of civilians.

"I think there are a number of cases that never make it to the reporting stage, and in some that do make it to the reporting stage, there has been a reluctance to pursue them vigorously," said Gary D. Solis, a law professor at Georgetown University and a former Marine prosecutor. "There have been fewer prosecutions in Iraq than one might expect."

"But we should not forget that so many of our soldiers and Marines are performing not only honorably, but heroically, in very difficult circumstances," he added. "Their contributions should not be tarnished by the acts of a very, very few."

Top military officers, military lawyers, experts and troops say the number of homicide cases prosecuted probably represents only a small portion of the incidents in which Iraqi citizens were killed under questionable circumstances. Officials also say privately that some cases have not been investigated thoroughly because there has been a tendency to consider Iraqi civilian deaths an unintended consequence of combat operations.

"I think there were many other engagements that should have been investigated, definitely," said an Army major who served in Iraq in 2004, speaking anonymously because he fears retribution. "But no one wanted to look at them or report them higher. . . . It was just the way things worked."

Others contend, however, that civilian deaths are inevitable in war and that the close combat environment in Iraq frequently puts civilians in the line of U.S. and insurgent fire.

The cases highlight the sometimes fine line between a criminal allegation and the bloodshed that is a part of war. Spec. Nathan Lynn, a Pennsylvania National Guardsman, shot and killed a man in the darkness of a Ramadi neighborhood in February. Lynn said he considered the man a threat and believes he did nothing wrong.

The man was not armed, and Lynn was charged with voluntary manslaughter. But a military investigator agreed that Lynn acted properly in a difficult situation, and the charges were dropped.

"I was extremely surprised when I was charged because it was clear the shooting fell within the guidelines of my rules of engagement," Lynn said. "This is a war. It's not a police action."

A Look at the Numbers

The Post undertook the review after allegations surfaced in recent months that U.S. forces had killed significant numbers of civilians in places such as Haditha, Hamdaniya and Mahmudiyah, with many of the victims women and children. The review included the military justice system's disposition of incidents that occurred from June 2003 to February 2006. It did not include cases from Afghanistan.

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