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 Monday, June 05, 2006

IRAQ: US Marine's Blatant Lies about Haditha Massacre of Innocents Lasted For SIX Months !


Thomas E. Ricks

Who lied and who knew the truth about the massacre of innocents in Haditha ?
Read here original article in Washington Post

At 5 p.m. Nov. 19, near the end of one of the most violent days the Marine Corps had experienced in the Upper Euphrates Valley, a call went out for trucks to collect the bodies of 24 Iraqi civilians.

The unit that arrived in Haditha found babies, women and children, shot in the head and chest.

An old man in a wheelchair had been shot nine times.

A group of girls, ages 1 to 14, lay dead.

Everyone had been killed by gunfire, according to death certificates issued later.

The next day, Capt. Jeffrey Pool, a Marine spokesman, released a terse statement:

Fifteen Iraqis "were killed yesterday from the blast of a roadside bomb in Haditha.

Immediately after the bombing, gunmen attacked the convoy with small-arms fire.

Iraqi army soldiers and Marines returned fire, killing eight insurgents and wounding another."

Despite what Marine witnesses saw when they arrived, that official version has been allowed to stand for six months.

Who lied about the killings, who knew the truth and what, if anything, they did about it is at the core of one of the potentially most damaging events of the Iraq war, one that some say may surpass the abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib prison.

The Marine Corps is saying only that it would be inappropriate to comment while investigations are under way.

But since that Saturday afternoon in November, evidence has been accumulating that the official version was wrong , and several top officials suspect what happened in Haditha went beyond the usual daily violence in Iraq.

On Nov. 29, Kilo Company of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment had a memorial service at a Marine base for Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas, a well-liked 20-year-old from El Paso, Texas.

He was killed in a roadside bomb explosion that appears to have been the trigger for what looks to investigators like revenge shootings.

In January, a top military official arrived in Iraq who would play a key role in the case: Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the new No. 2 military officer in the country.

Student provides video

Not long after Chiarelli arrived in Baghdad, an Iraqi journalism student gave an Iraqi human rights group a video he had taken in Haditha the day after the incident.

It showed the scene at the local morgue and the damage in the houses where the killings took place.

The video reached Time magazine, whose reporters began questioning U.S. officials.

Pool sent the reporters an e-mail saying that they were falling for al-Qaida propaganda, the magazine said recently.

Pool declined last week to comment.

But Army Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a more senior spokesman in Baghdad, notified Chiarelli of the questions.

The general's response to his public affairs office was short: Just brief the Time reporter on the military investigation into the incident that Chiarelli assumed had been conducted.

The word came back: There had been NO investigation.

Chiarelli told subordinates in early February he was amazed by that response, according to an Army officer in Iraq.

He directed that an inquiry commence as soon as possible. He wanted to know what had happened in Haditha.

Two conclusions reached

Army Col. Gregory Watt was tapped to start an investigation and by March 9, he told Chiarelli that he had reached two conclusions, according to an Army officer in Iraq:

•One was that death certificates showed that the 24 Iraqis who died that day — the 15 the Marines said had died in the bomb blast and others they said were insurgents — had been killed by gunshot rather than a bomb, as the official statement had said.

•The other was that the Marine Corps had NOT investigated the deaths, as is the U.S. military's typical procedure in Iraq.

On March 10, the findings were given to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Rumsfeld told aides that the case promised to be a major problem.

He called it "really, really bad — as bad or worse than Abu Ghraib," recalled one Pentagon official.

On March 11, President Bush was informed.

Key leaders informed

That weekend, almost four months after the killings, "we went to general quarters," recalled one Marine general.

The following Monday, March 13, Marine officers began briefing key members of Congress on defense-related committees. Their message was brief:
Something highly disturbing had happened in Haditha.

The alacrity of the Marine response surprised some of Rumsfeld's aides in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. OSD, as it is called at the Pentagon, who told the Marine Corps a few days later not to say anything to anyone about the investigation, recalled the general.

Too late, the Marines responded, we've already briefed Capitol Hill.

The Marines began their own investigation almost immediately, following up on Watt's inquiry, but quickly realized that to credibly examine the acts of their top commanders in Iraq, they would need someone outside their service.

The Army offered Maj. Gen. Eldon Bargewell, a career Special Operations officer, to look into the matter. The Marines, who are part of the Navy Department, also turned over the question of criminal acts to agents of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.

Notified on March 12, the NCIS immediately sent a team of three Iraq-based investigators to Haditha, one of the most violent areas in Iraq.

A few days later, as the scope of the case sank in, it dispatched a team of reinforcements from the United States.

But even then, nothing had been made public about the November event that might have distinguished it from Iraq's daily bloodshed.

Then, on March 19, the Time magazine article appeared. "I watched them shoot my grandfather, first in the chest and then in the head," the magazine quoted Eman Waleed, 9, as saying.

Most of the victims were shot at close range, the director of the local hospital told Time.

Commanders relieved

The first public indication that the military was taking those allegations seriously came on April 7, when Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani was relieved of command of the 3rd Battalion of the 1st Marines, Kilo Company's parent unit.

Also removed were Kilo's commander, Capt. Luke McConnell, and the commander of another company. Even then, the Marine Corps didn't specify why the actions were taken, beyond saying that the officers had lost the confidence of their superiors.

Then, on May 17, Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., let the news slip out.

In the middle of a rambling statement at the outset of a news conference on Capitol Hill, he said — almost as an aside — that what happened in Haditha was "much worse than reported in Time magazine."

He asserted that the investigations would reveal that "our troops overreacted because of the pressure on them, and they killed innocent civilians in cold blood."
The facts of the shooting incident seem now to be largely known, with military insiders saying that recent news articles are similar to the internal reports they have received from investigators.

But considerable mystery remains about how Marine commanders handled the incident and contributed to what some officials suspect was a cover-up.

"The real issue is how far up the chain of command it goes," said one senior Marine familiar with the case.

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