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General blames report in Haditha case

He says he didn't order an investigation of 24 civilian deaths because report was misleading.

June 02, 2007|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

CAMP PENDLETON — A Marine general testified Friday that he probably would have ordered an investigation of the killing of 24 civilians in the Iraqi town of Haditha but for a misleading report filed by the commander there.

The testimony by Maj. Gen. Richard Huck is central to the prosecution's case against Marine Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani, 43, accused of dereliction of duty and violating a lawful order for not launching a complete investigation of the killings.

On Nov. 19, 2005, Marines under Chessani's command shot five young men near their car and then killed 19 members of three families in or near their homes. The incident occurred in the early morning near the market area of Haditha, a onetime insurgent stronghold in the Euphrates River valley.

The five men shot to death "were essentially executed," said Lt. Col. Paul Atterbury, a prosecutor. No weapons were found in or near the car.

Eight Iraqis were killed in the first house, six in the second and four in the third. One civilian was killed outside one of the homes. Marines lobbed fragmentation grenades into the houses and then fired M-16s as they entered; evidence suggested that the Marines fired hundreds of rounds.

The report filed by Chessani that night indicated that the deaths were the result of a roadside bombing and crossfire between Marines and insurgents.

But evidence in Chessani's Article 32 inquiry, similar to a preliminary hearing, showed that no weapons or insurgent shell-casings were found in the houses and that the homes were more than 100 yards from where a bomb had exploded under a Humvee, killing a Marine and injuring two.

Defense attorneys assert that Chessani informed his bosses that there had been civilian fatalities, including women and children. But prosecutors say the report was misleading in suggesting that the Marines were responding to gunfire and that some of the deaths had been caused by the roadside bomb.

Prosecutors emphasized that the report indicated Chessani had examined the scene of the killings. According to testimony, Chessani did not go to the scene.

Chessani's report violated the "trust tactics" that Marine officers rely upon to get information from the battlefield, Huck testified. Huck said that based on Chessani's report, he decided that no investigation of the incident was needed.

"There is a high level of confidence when a formal report comes through and says the battalion commander is on the scene," he said.

At the time of the killings, Huck was commander of the 2nd Marine Division. Chessani commanded the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment.

The military ordered an investigation only after Time magazine published a lengthy article that included accounts from Iraqi witnesses. In December 2006, four officers and four enlisted Marines were charged in what is the largest war-crime allegation involving U.S. troops in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Chessani also did not forward a demand for an investigation that the Haditha town council made just after the shootings. During the hearing Friday, Atterbury pressed Huck for his opinion of that decision.

If he had known of the demand, Huck testified, he would have concluded that "perhaps I should get an investigation started."

A second officer, Lt. Col. Christopher Starling, said that, like Huck, he saw nothing in the report filed by Chessani's battalion that provided evidence of a war crime. Starling testified that battalion commanders had repeatedly been lectured to avoid civilian casualties.

Starling, who was operations officer for the 2nd Marine Regiment and read Chessani's daily reports, said civilian casualties undercut the U.S. effort to win the populace's support away from the insurgency.

"If you kill the wrong people, that's going to reflect on how they view you," Starling said on a speaker phone from Iraq, where he is now a battalion commander.

The hearing officer, Col. Christopher Conlin, will make a recommendation to Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis on whether the case against Chessani should go to court-martial, be dropped or be dealt with in an administrative process.

The Article 32 hearing is expected to last another week, as the defense calls character witnesses for Chessani, a decorated infantry officer who was on his third tour in Iraq.

tony.perry@latimes.com

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