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THE WORLD

Marines Getting a New Message

July 09, 2006|Tony Perry and T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writers

SAN DIEGO — Even before the investigation of the killing of 24 civilians in the Iraqi town of Haditha is complete, the Marine Corps has taken action, stressing accountability and sternly reminding officers that they must investigate all civilian deaths.

The investigative report, by an Army general, will be highly critical of officers for not investigating the Nov. 19 incident in which Marines from Camp Pendleton allegedly stormed into houses and killed the occupants after a roadside bombing killed a fellow Marine.

The report will also recommend that the Marine Corps change its training to remind troops that the rules for dealing with insurgencies are different from those for classic battles such as the assault on Baghdad in 2003 and the operations in the Sunni Triangle in 2004.

The Corps has anticipated the criticism, government officials close to the inquiry say.

"The word has gone out very clearly: When a civilian is killed, officers need to know how and why, and they need to get that information to the highest levels as quickly as possible," said an official who declined to be identified.

Training at Camp Pendleton, Twentynine Palms and other bases has been altered to emphasize restraint in the use of deadly force when civilians are involved.

In late May, Marine Commandant Gen. Michael Hagee went to Iraq to remind Marines of the international rules of warfare that call for protection of noncombatants.

And Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis, who led Marines into Iraq in 2003 and during the April 2004 fight in Fallouja, recently returned from an unpublicized two-week trip to Iraq to talk to Marines.

Bing West, a former assistant Defense secretary and author of two books about the Marines in Iraq, said that Mattis had made it "crystal clear": "If shot at from a crowd of civilians, a Marine is not to fire back and endanger women and children."

Former Marine Col. Thomas X. Hammes, an expert on insurgent warfare, said a lack of accountability in cases involving the mistreatment of civilians by U.S. personnel -- particularly at the Abu Ghraib prison -- helped fuel the insurgency by creating a source of frustration among ordinary Iraqis.

He praised efforts to promote greater accountability among senior officers, saying it would help fight the war in Iraq.

"To date, we've been very, very poor at holding our people accountable," Hammes said. "Anything that ... emphasizes the responsibility up the chain of command is a positive step. It certainly will help our troops on the ground."

The investigative report was done by Army Maj. Gen. Eldon Bargewell and reviewed by Army Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli.

Chiarelli's office said Friday that the report would next be sent to Army Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq. Finally, the report will be sent to Marine Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, commanding general of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Pendleton.

Sattler, or his successor, will use that report, and an investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, to determine whether any of a dozen Marines with the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, should face criminal charges. Sattler is set to be relieved this summer by Mattis.

Investigators have concluded that some of the Marines should face murder charges and that the killings were unprovoked and outside the international rules of warfare. Defense attorneys insist that the Marines were acting within the rules of engagement laid down by their officers.

The Army report is known to be critical of top officers in the 2nd Marine Division for failing to see "red flags" that should have made them question the report from ground troops. The military began an investigation only after Time magazine uncovered evidence disputing the Marines' original account of the killings.

Although the troops are with the 1st Marine Division based at Camp Pendleton, they were accountable to officers with the 2nd Regiment of the 2nd Marine Division, based at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

Two top officers in the chain of command during the Haditha incident were replaced last month, though officials said both changes had been scheduled before the controversy.

Maj. Gen. Richard Huck, commanding officer of the 2nd Marine Division, announced his retirement. And Col. Stephen Davis, commander of the second 2nd Regiment, was replaced and reassigned.

After the troops involved in the Haditha incident returned to Camp Pendleton, the commanding general of the 1st Marine Division relieved the battalion commander and company commander after losing "confidence in their leadership."

Said one Marine officer with extensive experience in Iraq, "No question, this hasn't been the Marine Corps' finest hour. But I think everybody is locked on to seeing that it never happens again."

Perry reported from San Diego and Miller from Washington.

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