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North County Times June 3, 2006

Will civilian killings mark turning point in Iraq?

By Mark Walker

Two incidents of alleged war crimes by Camp Pendleton Marines that resulted in 25 Iraqi civilian deaths are raising critical questions for a service branch that prides itself on discipline.

The allegations, which are drawing comparisons to atrocities committed during the Vietnam War, also may cause irreparable damage to U.S. progress in the political arena and on the battlefield, according to a pair of well-respected national security analysts.

At issue are the alleged shooting deaths of 24 unarmed civilians in Haditha on Nov. 19, 2005, and the possible kidnapping and murder death of a single Iraqi in the city of Hamandiya on April 26.

While no one has yet been charged with a crime and the investigations are ongoing, the accusations alone are damning enough. Combined, they have the potential to bolster the insurgency, which could use the episodes to recruit new fighters and ratchet up the violence that each month kills about 60 members of the U.S. military and scores of Iraqi civilians.

"The problem with incidents like these is that it validates all the false ideas and attacks on the United States and immediately brings to mind other cases, such as Abu Ghraib," said Anthony Cordesman, a leading defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

There also is significant risk of irreparable damage in the political arena, and on the battlefield, he said.

"This is a major defeat in the war of ideas."

The end result is the likely killing of more American forces and a new recruiting tool for the extremists, who will come back with a vengeance, said Cordesman, an ABC news analyst, former Senate Armed Services Committee staffer and former director of intelligence assessment in the office of the Secretary of Defense.

"As unpleasant as it is, if the charges against the Marines are verified, it is going to end up killing more American soldiers than insurgents by breeding more hatred," he said.

John Pike, founder and director of Washington's GlobalSecurity.org, said the picture appears bleak.

"It's bad for the war effort and it's bad for the Marines," he said. "If this turns out to be a massacring civilians in cold blood and that version of events is confirmed, it will lend credibility to a lot of other stories that were before not considered credible."

The possible attempt to cover up each case may be just as devastating for the Marine Corps as an institution.

"It's difficult to believe from the reports to date that there were not field grade officers, if not general officers, who failed to actively investigate and let Semper Fi or other loyalties cloud their judgment," Cordesman said.

"If that is what happened, it is as much a failure of the will to do what was right as an active cover-up."

The targets

Two Camp Pendleton units are under the microscope of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service for the alleged killings, the most prominent the purported slaying of 24 unarmed civilians in Haditha in November 2005 by members of Kilo Company from the storied 1st Marine Division's 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment.

As many as eight or more company members are under investigation in that incident, which also prompted a probe of whether some Marine officers in Iraq tried to cover up what happened. A preliminary report appears to conclude they did, suggesting some officers provided phony information to superiors who failed to press the matter, the Washington Post reported last week.

The magnitude of the Haditha incident was underscored by a top military officer in Iraq close to that investigation.

"It is really going to come out ugly, unfortunately," the officer said in an e-mail obtained by the North County Times.

The second, and far less prominent case until late last week, involves seven Marines and a sailor, some of whom have been in a Pendleton brig for several weeks.

In that incident, an Iraqi civilian was allegedly dragged out of his home in the city of Hamandiya west of Baghdad and shot to death on April 26 by members of a unit from the 1st Division's 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment.

The Marines allegedly planted an AK-47 and shovel near the body to make it look like he was an insurgent planting a roadside bomb. In addition to the Marines in the brig, an unspecified number have been restricted to base.

San Diego attorney Jeremiah Sullivan said Thursday that seven Marines and a Navy Corpsman would soon face homicide, kidnapping and conspiracy charges, dramatically elevating the attention on that case.

All Pendleton official would say Friday is that the case remains under investigation and that an unspecified number of troops were being held in the brig and that those being held were entitled to appear before a magistrate for a pre-trial confinement hearing.

A question of climate

Cordesman, who also spent time as a national security aide to U.S. Senator and 2008 presidential hopeful John McCain, said the chain of command is at issue in three areas.

"There had to be a climate that allowed this to happen," he said. "All the efforts to train and educate the Marines obviously failed and did not have the impact it should have if the allegations are true."

The training also failed, Cordesman said, if a noncommissioned officer such as the Kilo Company leader in Haditha that day allowed the killings to happen in the horrific ways described in various accounts from surviving family members and members of the unit.

"In the Marine Corps, you don't get to that rank by getting a promotion in the mail," he said. "All we know is that it looks like a senior NCO basically not only lost control of his unit, he encouraged it to commit atrocities and if that happened, it is absolutely unforgivable."

The third failure involves higher-ups in the battalion, the regiment and the division, he said.

"It's not like Watergate, where the president was asked what did he know and when did he know it," Cordesman said. "In the military, the question is fundamentally different. It is what should they have known and when should they have known it and what did they do about it."

GlobalSecurity.org's Pike agreed.

"How far up the chain did they know what had happened and how far up the chain should they have known," he said. "How much willingness and knowing complicity could there have been in trying to hide culpability?"

Heading up the Pendleton Marines now in Iraq is Maj. Gen. Richard Zilmer,commander of the more than 20,000-strong Pendleton-based I Marine Expeditionary Force.

Beneath Zilmer is Maj. Gen. Richard Natonski, who led the assault on Fallujah in November 2004. Natonksi heads up the 1st Marine Division, and it was he who took action against officers tied to the Haditha incident when they returned from Iraq in April.

Relieved and reassigned were Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani, who commanded the 3rd battalion, and Capt. Luke McConnell, who was in charge of Kilo Company.

Also relieved and reassigned was Capt. James Kimber, who headed up the battalion's India Company, who has complained he was not even present in Haditha on Nov. 19.

Paul Hackett, a former Marine and now an attorney in Ohio, is representing McConnell. He told the Associated Press last week that his client was not involved in the Haditha incident nor in any cover-up.

The news service also reported that Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich was one of the senior noncommissioned officers on the patrol in Haditha when the unit allegedly entered two homes and killed 21 civilians, including several women and children and an elderly man in a wheelchair.

The unit also is alleged to have then killed a taxi driver and two college students who drove into the area.

The incident was reported by the Marines as a battle with insurgents and the only casualties were said to be insurgent fighters and Kilo Company Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas, 20, of El Paso, Texas. It was the death of Terrazas in a roadside bomb explosion that allegedly triggered the Marines to rampage.

A short time after the killings, Marine Maj. Dana Hyatt paid the relatives of some of the slain nearly $40,000, a payment he told the Associated Press was ordered by unnamed superior officers. After the first payments, demands for more money from other survivors were agreed upon and ordered to be paid by Chessani and other unnamed regimental commanders, Hyatt has said.

Another investigation, more training

Iraq officials announced Thursday they would conduct their own probe of what happened in Haditha with members of its Justice and Human Rights ministries.

As that word came, Lt. Gen. Chiarelli announced a new round of "ethical" training for all U.S. military units in Iraq. The training will emphasize military values and disciplined conduct in combat, he said.

At Pendleton, a similar exercise is under way, a base spokesman said.

"Camp Pendleton will indeed echo Lt. Gen. Chiarelli's initiatives to implement more rules of engagement and law of armed conflict courses with training packages of our own to supplement the classes Marines already receive at boot camp and as part of the pre-deployment continuum," 2nd Lt. Lawton King said.

That will all be reinforced sometime in the next two or three weeks when Corps' Commandant Gen. Michael Hagee visits the base, part of a tour of Marine Corps facilities he is undertaking.

Congress

Just how high evidence of an alleged cover-up of the Haditha killings may reach remains to be seen. The report on that incident is being conducted by the U.S. Army under the command of Maj. Gen. Eldon Bargewell. It and the investigations of the two Pendleton units are expected to be finalized within days.

Once they are, Congress will weigh in as the House and Senate Armed Services Committees has each announced plans to conduct separate hearings.

The precise nature of those hearings is not yet determined, but U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon, has said he wants to examine how the investigation has been handled.

Hunter last week rejected suggestions Marines are increasingly vulnerable to incidents of rage because of repeated deployments and no clear lines delineating friend and foe.

"The idea that what one squad did on one day is somehow reflective on 922,000 men and women who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan is squirrely," he said.

But GlobalSecurity.org's Pike said combat stress is clearly at issue.

"What was the command climate that allowed these Marines to get so stressed out that they would have done something like this? Massacring civilians is a symptomatic of combat stress and raises questions over what shortcomings there were that would have allowed this.

"There may have to be a lot more training for NCOs and field grade officers on stress management."

Hunter also has lost patience with Pennsylvania Democratic Congressman John Murtha, who has charged the Marine Corps with covering up the Haditha case and said on several occasions it was outright murder.

"I don't know how you can predict what's in a report that's not finished," Hunter said, adding that he is confident the administration will "let the chips fall where they may" when the reports are concluded.

President Bush has promised the full story will be released to the public and that any criminal prosecutions deemed warranted will be carried out.

"The world will see the full and complete investigation," Bush said Thursday.

Pendleton

Back at Camp Pendleton, the base public affairs office is swamped with media calls each day about the Haditha and Hamandiya incidents.

In a sign of the growing seriousness and pressures on the Marines in the coming days, Lt. Col. Sean Gibson, who has been a point of contact for reporters at the U.S. military's Central Command headquarters in Florida, headed for Pendleton last week.

"I'll be there to work on public affairs matters concerning the Haditha incident," Gibson said.

If there criminal charged are lodged, military officials have said any court-martial trials would take place at Pendleton.

U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, whose 49th Congressional District includes Pendleton, said lawmakers, the military and the executive branch are committed to a full understanding of what happened.

"We want to get to the bottom of it and anyone who did something wrong will be held accountable," the Vista Republican said.

An Army veteran, Issa said the rules of warfare are well-known to every soldier, sailor and Marine.

"But we're still all human beings and it takes repeated training to keep failures to a minimum," he said.

As for the chain of command, Issa said the military requires its leaders to take full responsibility for any breakdown in the conduct of subordinates.

"Commanders who had no direct knowledge can be held accountable for the failure to train, educate and motivate," Issa said. "If there was wrongdoing, the culprits will be punished and those above them will be evaluated for what they should have, or could have, done."


Copyright 2006, North County Times - Lee Enterprises