By Sonya Geis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 2, 2007
CAMP PENDLETON, Calif., June 1 -- In the week after Marines killed 24 civilians in Haditha, Iraq, an angry group of townspeople went to the local military base alleging a "crime of war" and demanding an investigation, a military prosecutor said Friday.
The town council, the mayor and 14 other town leaders spent a "heated and emotional" 45 minutes with Marine officers. They presented an account of the deaths and a written demand for an investigation, translated into English, the prosecutor said at an investigative hearing here.
But though the Iraqis met with the Marine battalion's commander, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani, and two other officers, news of the meeting did not travel up the chain of command as it should have, a two-star general testified Friday. An investigation was not launched until four months later.
"I think the question becomes, did [Chessani] report everything that he knew. And I have some questions about that," said Maj. Gen. Richard A. Huck, who at the time commanded a division in Iraq.
Whether Chessani did his duty in reporting the deaths of two dozen civilians at Haditha in November 2005 is the subject of an Article 32 investigation here, akin to a civilian grand jury proceeding. Chessani is the highest-ranking of four officers charged with failing to investigate the killings, which occurred after a bomb hit a Marine convoy and killed one serviceman. In the aftermath, investigators later found, Marines shot five men who stepped out of a nearby taxi and four men in a local house. The others who died, mostly women and children, were killed in nearby homes. Three enlisted Marines are charged with murder.
In testimony at hearings for the charged Marines, those who knew of the deaths have typically said they did not believe they merited investigation. Huck testified that, based on reports of the roadside bomb attack and small-arms fire against the troops, he did not think a war crime occurred.
Even after Huck learned that a reporter for Time magazine had questions about the incident in February 2006, he did not believe it was worth investigating, he said Friday by videoconference from the Pentagon. Huck and his subordinates were criticized in an Army general's investigation last year for devaluing Iraqi civilian lives, and Huck told investigators that he believed the allegations of murder to be insurgent propaganda at the time.
But, Huck testified, if he had known of the townspeople's complaints and written demands to Chessani and two subordinates -- Sgt. Maj. Edward T. Sax and Capt. Lucas M. McConnell, the Kilo Company commander -- he would have thought that "it sounds like a law-of-armed-conflict violation."
When Chessani saw the townspeople's written complaint, Huck said, he "should be thinking, 'Perhaps I'd better get an investigation started.' "
The battalion had other early indications that the killings were questionable, according to Naval Criminal Investigative Service documents. Capt. James C. Haynie, the battalion's information officer, told investigators that the day after the killings, two Iraqi civilians approached him and one said the shootings were murders.
"I explained to him that whoever had told him this had lied, that Marines do not execute innocent civilians," Haynie told the NCIS. He dismissed the allegations as "outlandish."
Huck said he particularly trusted Chessani's information because of a report that the colonel, who has served 18 years in the Marine Corps, visited the scene of the deaths. In fact, Chessani did not visit the scene until the next day. Huck said he relies on subordinates to report things accurately. "In a counterinsurgency, things are decentralized," he said. "You have to rely on trust tactics."
The Haditha killings initially might have been dismissed because they took place in a violent and busy area, Huck pointed out. At the time, Anbar province was the scene of multiple complex operations, daily fighting and preparations for national elections, he said.
An investigation was launched only after the Time reporter's questions reached Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, at the time the second-highest-ranking U.S. military officer in Iraq, who had just arrived in the country and brought a new approach to civilian casualties.
"The rules of engagement have evolved over time to where we're much more sensitive to civilian casualties than we were in Fallujah [in 2004], for example," Lt. Col. Christopher Starling, a former operations officer for the regiment in which Chessani served, testified Friday. Chiarelli, he said, "put much more emphasis on that."
Staff writer Josh White in Washington contributed to this report.