BAGHDAD — Military prosecutors and investigators probing the killing of three Iraqi detainees by U.S. troops in May believe the unit's commanders created an atmosphere of excessive violence by encouraging "kill counts" and possibly issuing an illegal order to shoot Iraqi men.
At a military hearing Wednesday on the killing of the detainees near Samarra, witnesses painted a picture of a brigade that operated under loose rules allowing wanton killing and tolerating violent, anti-Arab racism.
Some military officials believe that the shooting of the three detainees and the killing of 24 civilians in November in Haditha reveal failures in the military chain of command, in one case to establish proper rules of engagement and in the other to vigorously investigate incidents after the fact.
"The bigger thing here is the failure of the chain of command," said a Defense Department official familiar with the investigations.
As allegations of U.S. troop misconduct in Iraq have mounted, the military's defenders have maintained that most were isolated incidents and that officers and investigators working within the military justice system had succeeded in ferreting out the truth.
The military's primary report on the Haditha incident, completed this year, does not explicitly accuse the Marine command in Iraq of a cover-up. But the investigation cites several instances of information being ignored or evidence being destroyed, including log entries from the day the killings took place. The Defense official, who has reviewed the report, spoke on condition of anonymity because the findings have not been released.
Initial findings of investigators looking into the Samarra incident may be even more troubling. Military officials are investigating Army Col. Michael Steele, the commander of the 101st Airborne Division's 3rd Brigade, whose soldiers are accused of killing the three Iraqi detainees.
Investigators are trying to determine whether Steele issued an illegal order to "kill all military aged males" and encouraged unrestrained killing by his troops.
On Wednesday, a military court heard testimony from a witness who suggested that a culture of racism and unrestrained violence pervaded the unit.
The account of Pfc. Bradley Mason and other witnesses bolstered the findings of investigators who say the brigade's commanders led soldiers to believe it was permissible to kill Iraqi men.
Military prosecutors allege that four U.S. soldiers killed three unarmed Iraqi detainees during the May 9 raid. If convicted on charges of premeditated murder, Pfc. Corey R. Claggett, Spc. William B. Hunsaker, Staff Sgt. Raymond L. Girouard and Spc. Juston R. Graber could face the death penalty.
Wednesday's hearing was held at the 101st Airborne headquarters near Tikrit, Iraq, and is a preliminary investigation, equivalent to a civilian grand jury. The hearing is scheduled to continue today.
Mason said that just before "Operation Iron Triangle" began on an island in Tharthar Lake near Samarra, Steele and other officers ordered them to "engage and kill all military age men."
The Defense official familiar with the investigation said that even if Steele did not issue a verbal order, many in the brigade believed that was what the commander wanted.
A spokeswoman said the military could not respond to the specific allegations against Steele until the investigation was completed.
A senior military officer has sent a potentially career-ending reprimand to Steele, an officer who once commanded a Ranger company sent into Mogadishu, Somalia, on a rescue mission that was recounted in the book and movie "Black Hawk Down." However, the administrative action is not final because Steele has signaled that he is going to fight the accusations and the reprimand.
Steele has refused to testify in the case of the four soldiers, citing his right against self-incrimination, unless he is given immunity, prosecutors said.
The colonel has a reputation as a tough but potentially reckless commander. Investigators have found that Steele handed out knives to U.S. troops as rewards for killing insurgents, a defense official said. The investigation of Steele was first reported Tuesday by ABC News.
Before the Tharthar raid, Claggett and Hunsaker had not yet notched a kill on a brigade chart nor earned their knives from Steele, the defense official said.
The primary prosecution witness Wednesday was Mason, who testified under a grant of immunity. Mason has admitted making several false statements to investigators, and defense lawyers are likely to challenge his credibility.
Mason depicted a unit that had embraced a violent ethos and was routinely hostile to ordinary Iraqis. Commanders encouraged soldiers to compete to rack up "enemy kills," he said. A board at their headquarters that showed the numbers of Iraqis killed served to reinforce the message. "Let the bodies hit the floor," read a phrase at the bottom of the board.