The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee said Friday that he planned hearings into the military's investigation of whether Marines from Camp Pendleton brutally killed two dozen Iraqi civilians and lied to cover up possible war crimes.
Although the administrative investigation into the Nov. 19 incident in Haditha, Iraq, has not been completed, the comments by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon) suggested that its findings would be crucial.
"I don't want the actions of one squad in one city on one morning to be used to symbolize or characterize or tar the actions of our great troops," Hunter told a Washington news conference.
He put the number of dead at about 24 and indicated that frontline troops might not have been truthful in their initial accounts to their officers. Previous accounts have put the noninsurgent fatality count at 15, including several women and children.
The Haditha incident threatens to be the most scandalous episode involving the Marines in Iraq.
Hunter said a hearing would look at the thoroughness and "integrity" of the investigation being done by Army Maj. Gen. Eldon Bargewell and the recommendations to be made by Army Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the top operational commander in Iraq, once he reviews that investigation. Hunter said he expected the "voluminous" report to be sent to Chiarelli late next week and recommendations to be made within several days.
In a teleconference with reporters Friday, Chiarelli said the military "took these allegations very, very seriously."
Along with the administrative investigation underway by Bargewell, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service is investigating to determine whether any of the Marines should face charges. That report is expected in June.
A dozen troops from the 3rd Battalion, 1st Regiment, 1st Marine Division have been accused by Iraqis of bursting into their homes and firing in anger because a Marine had just been killed by a roadside bomb.
At first, the Marine Corps claimed the Iraqis were killed by an insurgent bomb or during a firefight. But after a report in Time magazine, the Corps backed off that assertion. The magazine obtained video footage taken by Iraqis showing bullet-riddled bodies and quoted Iraqis saying that there was no firefight.
Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) said this week that the Marines had "killed innocent civilians in cold blood." A critic of the Bush administration over the war, Murtha said that continued deployment in Iraq had pushed the troops to the breaking point.
"I totally reject that," said Hunter, who has supported the administration on the war, although often criticizing its slowness in providing armored Humvees and other gear.
Bargewell, the Army general, was assigned to oversee an investigation just days after a preliminary report was completed. Hunter promised a "thorough oversight of this incident" once Chiarelli, the operational commander in Iraq, had made his recommendations. Those could involve changes in tactics, training, and "after-action" reporting procedures.
Hunter said he expected a similar hearing by the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Last month, Maj. Gen. Richard Natonski, commanding general of the 1st Marine Division, fired a battalion commander and two company commanders -- a lieutenant colonel and two captains -- whose troops were involved in the Haditha incident. No reason was given other than that the general had "lost confidence" in their leadership.
Hunter said he was pleased the administrative investigation was being "conducted outside of the Marine Corps" by an Army general. "A lot of Marine officers thought that was necessary to maintain the integrity of the Corps," he said. "Honor means a lot to the Corps."
Hunter mentioned that the number of U.S. troops who received medals for bravery was large and that the number who might have been involved in misconduct in Haditha was small. "There has been no war in our history in which you didn't have people doing the wrong thing at one time or another."
On Friday, the Marine Corps promised in a statement that as soon as "the facts are known and decisions on future actions are made, we will make that information available to the public to the fullest extent possible."
The 3rd Battalion, 1st Regiment, 1st Marine Division is one of the most decorated battalions in the Corps. The battalion fought at Guadalcanal, made the landing at Inchon during the Korean War, and saw five years of combat in Vietnam.