By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 30, 2006
The platoon commander for the squad of Marines who killed as many as two dozen Iraqi civilians during an attack in Haditha last year recommended later that the sergeant who led the attack receive a medal for his heroism that day, according to military documents.
Lt. William T. Kallop wrote in a praise-filled memo that the incident on Nov. 19, 2005, was part of a complex insurgent ambush that included a powerful roadside bomb followed by a high volume of automatic-weapons fire from several houses in the neighborhood. He lauded Sgt. Frank Wuterich for his leadership in the "counterattack" on three houses while the unit received sporadic enemy fire.
The proposed citation indicates that Kallop -- the only Marine officer at the scene as the incident unfolded -- believed the unit was under a coordinated insurgent attack when Marines stormed civilian homes and opened fire, killing women and children. Whether Marines felt threatened and believed the homes to be hostile is a central element of their defense against potential criminal charges.
The documents offer one of the first public accounts of the incident from Kallop, 25, a University of Virginia graduate and New York City native. Kallop does not explicitly address the civilian deaths in his summary of the incident, which gives detailed support for Wuterich's combat actions from September to December 2005.
Representatives for Kallop, who was promoted to first lieutenant in May, could not be reached for comment yesterday. He is one of numerous Marines who are the subject of a Naval Criminal Investigative Service investigation into civilian deaths in the Haditha attack, which has alternately been characterized as a vengeful massacre and as the unfortunate collateral damage of war. None has been charged so far.
Neal A. Puckett, an attorney for Wuterich, provided the documents and the Marine's regular fitness report dated Jan. 19 to The Washington Post, saying they support his client's version of events, and show that officers in the unit believe Wuterich and the other Marines did the right thing in the Haditha attack. Wuterich has since been promoted to staff sergeant. The award was approved by the Kilo Company commander and was sent to battalion and, later, regimental headquarters before being put on hold at the division level, Puckett said.
Lt. Col. Scott Fazekas, a Marine Corps spokesman, said Marine officials found no record of the award. Fazekas also declined to discuss the Haditha incident.
While residents in the Iraqi neighborhood have said the Marines went from house to house in a rage, killing civilians in cold blood, Kallop complimented Wuterich on his calm demeanor and suggested that the incident led the Marines to valuable intelligence. Kallop arrived on the scene after the initial explosion.
"Sgt. Wuterich ensured that he had 360 degree security and led a counterattack on the buildings to his south where his Marines were still receiving sporadic fire from," Kallop wrote in support of a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal with a combat distinguishing device for Wuterich. "That counterattack turned the tide of the ambush and killed a number of insurgents still attempting to fight or attempting to flee the area."
In a summary of the incident, officials wrote that Wuterich's decisiveness "doubtlessly prevented further injury or death to fellow Marines and innocent civilians."
Puckett said Kallop approved the assault in the midst of battle: "This was a planned and orchestrated attack by insurgents, and the Marines were responding in accordance with their rules."
While it is possible that the Marines concocted a story after the shootings, Kallop's recommendation and the fitness report were completed in January, weeks after the incident but months before a criminal investigation was launched in March. Senior officials have said an investigation looking into command responsibility has concluded that officers should have been more diligent in investigating the shootings.
John Sifton, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said there is no doubt that civilians were killed in Haditha and that the real question is whether the shootings were accidental or intentional. He said Kallop's account notably does not describe the civilian deaths.
"Our concern has been that when a bunch of civilians get killed and there are a bunch of questions about it, why didn't the military ask those questions at the beginning?" Sifton said. "The issue is not solely Haditha; it's whether the military has the ability to police itself."
Kallop described the response to the bomb attack as successful, largely because it led to the arrest of 18 people, which in turn led to the capture of more insurgents who were "complicit in the ambush."
Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.