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Haditha Report to Fault Oversight, Official Says

But the findings apparently do not indicate a deliberate cover-up by officers looking into the slayings of 24 Iraqi civilians.

June 17, 2006|Tony Perry and Julian E. Barnes | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The general charged with investigating whether Marines tried to cover up the killing of 24 civilians in Haditha has completed his report, finding that Marine officers failed to ask the right questions, an official close to the investigation said Friday.

Nothing in the report points to a "knowing cover-up" of the facts by the officers supervising the Marines involved in the November incident, the official said. Rather, he said, officers from the company level through the staff of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force in Baghdad failed to demand "a thorough explanation" of what happened in Haditha.

In an official announcement about the report by Army Maj. Gen. Eldon Bargewell, a military spokeswoman said that Army Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli would "thoroughly review the voluminous report as quickly as possible," but had no timetable.

"That means don't hold your breath," a defense official said.

Military officials Friday also released new details about the deaths in May of three Iraqi civilians in U.S. custody in Salahuddin province north of Baghdad. Army criminal investigators have been examining the incident for at least two weeks, a defense official said. The soldiers involved appear to have tried to cover it up by saying the civilians were trying to flee, the official said.

In the Haditha case, military officials have said that photographs of the scene contradicted the initial reports of Marines that the civilians were killed in the crossfire of a battle that erupted after a roadside bomb went off.

Bargewell's inquiry was believed to have looked into who knew about the photos, and why those military men did not question the initial report.

Under military procedures, Chiarelli can either accept Bargewell's findings or substitute his own. He also can send it back to Bargewell for additional information.

Chiarelli is expected to use the report to make recommendations to the military on changes necessary to address problems identified in Bargewell's report.

The official close to the investigation said that when Marine Commandant Gen. Michael Hagee went to Iraq recently, he warned Marines about becoming "indifferent to the loss of a human life." That, the official said, "is the real danger ... not brutality but lack of sharpness, lack of oversight."

In the wake of the Haditha incident and Hagee's visit to the troops, the Marine Corps has ordered that all incidents involving death or injury of Iraqi civilians be fully documented. When the 3rd Battalion, 1st Regiment, 1st Marine Division returned to Camp Pendleton, the commanding general of the division relieved the battalion commander and the company commander whose troops were involved in the Haditha incident.

In the Salahuddin incident, defense officials said, three Iraqis in U.S. custody were shot May 9 by American soldiers southeast of Balad.

The deaths were witnessed by lower-ranking soldiers, who told their superiors that the other soldiers had acted improperly, according to a military official in Baghdad.

The soldiers involved in the shooting initially said that the three detainees had tried to escape, and that they killed them as they were trying to flee. When Army officials began to investigate, they concluded that the detainees had not tried to escape, and they ordered a criminal inquiry, a Defense Department official said.

The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because the Army's Criminal Investigation Division had not finished its inquiry.

A military official in Baghdad said the incident did not occur at a checkpoint, contradicting preliminary information that a Pentagon official provided Thursday. An official in the Pentagon confirmed Friday that the incident did not take place at a checkpoint. However, officials were not able to describe where the incident occurred.

Military officials said the incident did not involve soldiers using excessive force or wrongfully escalating the amount of force used. Instead, investigators are looking at allegations that the soldiers deliberately and wrongfully killed the civilians, Defense Department officials said.

The military is releasing few details about the killings out of fear that publicity could complicate what appears to be an open-and-shut case, a military official said. Officials believe publicity has compromised the Haditha investigation and are worried that the Salahuddin investigation also could be affected. As a result, they say, they are not releasing details -- even at the risk of raising more questions.

Meanwhile, at Camp Pendleton, officials announced Friday that seven Marines and a Navy corpsman would remain in the brig pending possible charges in the April 26 killing of an Iraqi man in Hamandiya.

But the eight will no longer be shackled when they leave their cells to see visitors or exercise. Handcuffs attached to a leather belt will be used only if they leave the brig, a spokesman said.

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