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Report Details 'Friendly Fire' Casualties in Deadly Battle

As many as 10 Marines might have been killed by U.S. forces during the deadliest fighting of the Iraq war in March 2003, a document shows.

March 28, 2004|Hector Becerra, Robert J. Lopez and Rich Connell | Times Staff Writers

As many as 10 Marines may have been killed by friendly fire in the midst of the deadliest battle of the Iraq war when a Marine air controller mistakenly cleared Air Force A-10 jets to shoot on U.S. positions, according to a long-awaited military investigation.

The report, portions of which were obtained by The Times on Saturday, paints a chaotic picture of the March 23, 2003, battle in the southern Iraq city of Nasiriyah, as Marines fought to seize two bridges crucial to the American advance on Baghdad.

When Marine units around the city lost communication, commanders became confused about the location of American troops. Two tank-busting jets were given permission by a controller to attack what turned out to be a forward Marine company. The documents describe 15 minutes of air attacks on the friendly forces using 30-millimeter Gatling guns, Maverick missiles and bombs, ending in the destruction of two amphibious assault vehicles that were trying to evacuate wounded Marines.

The full report, running hundreds of pages, is scheduled to be released this week.

In contrast to the descriptions of precision bombing that have come to define the American military, Marine and Air Force investigators documented a chain of faulty battlefield assumptions by the Marine forward air controller and other commanders who did not know where their troops were arrayed on the battlefield and had scant means of communicating during the fight.

In all, 18 Marines were killed, including four Californians, and 17 were wounded during three hours of intense fighting with Iraqi army troops and militiamen.

"The A-10s targeted what turned out to be" U.S. Marines, the report states, "making multiple passes against them.

"Eventually, the A-10s were told to cease fire, which they did."

Of the 18 killed, the investigation found that eight had died "solely" as the result of enemy fire. But it added, "the intensity of the enemy fire, combined with friendly fire, makes it impossible to conclusively determine the exact sequence and source of fires that killed the other 10 Marines." The Marines who might have been killed by friendly fire were not identified in the documents obtained by The Times. Of the 17 Marines wounded in the battle, four were hit by a combination of enemy and friendly fire, the investigation found.

In a carefully choreographed release, the nearly 900-page report was presented Saturday in briefings to relatives of Marines who had died that day. The emotional, and sometimes tense, sessions unfolded simultaneously in living rooms from Southern California to Connecticut.

Some relatives welcomed the briefings, saying the process would help them move on. Others said the report left painful questions unanswered.

Larry Hutchings, 52, of Boiling Springs, S.C., was told that his son, Cpl. Nolen Hutchings, had died in a Marine vehicle hit by both a U.S. missile and an Iraqi rocket-propelled grenade. "They don't know which hit it first," he said.

The A-10s are equipped with gun cameras that take pictures of what they are shooting, but Hutchings said he had been told that the film no longer existed. "They said they were recorded over accidentally," he said.

Like many other family members, Hutchings questioned why the report had taken so long to release. He said a Marine officer had told him Saturday that the investigation had "sat on somebody's desk" for four months.

"He didn't have an explanation for that," Hutchings said.

Two casualty officers delivered the news in a Rialto living room to Lance Cpl. Jorge Gonzalez's parents, Mario and Rosa, and the Marine's widow, Jasty Gonzalez.

Amid countless photos of Gonzalez, the Marines told the family that Gonzalez had died from enemy fire, suffering extensive damage to his legs and head. His 1-year-old son, who was born after Gonzalez left for the Persian Gulf, played in the family's living room during the briefing.

Rosa Gonzalez, the Marine's mother, expressed anger before the briefing even began. "What's insulting is that it took a year for this," she said

Marine Capt. Matthew Bucher then explained the sequence of the battle. "He had passed on at a point before the Air Force jets showed up," Bucher said. "Your son was killed by Iraqi enemy fire. He was killed by what's called indirect fire from the enemy. An enemy mortar man was the cause of your son's death, not friendly fire." Gonzalez's death appeared to have been very quick, he said.

The Marines told the tearful mother that neither her son's body, nor the position the Americans had taken, had ever been lost to Iraqis, trying to allay a fear that has haunted Gonzalez's parents since they saw televised footage that showed dead servicemen and thought they saw their son.

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