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Marine denies wrongdoing in Haditha case

Officer says `nonstop action' kept him from visiting site of killings.

June 10, 2007|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

CAMP PENDLETON — Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani told the investigating officer at his preliminary hearing Saturday that he did not believe he had done anything criminally wrong in the aftermath of a Marine shooting in the town of Haditha that left 24 Iraqi civilians dead.

"I would say to you, I do not believe my decisions and actions were criminal, sir," Chessani told Col. Christopher Conlin.

Chessani, 43, faces a possible court-martial for not calling for a war-crimes investigation after Marines in his battalion killed 24 Iraqis on Nov. 19, 2005.

Five months after the Haditha shootings, Chessani was relieved of command of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Regiment amid an investigation that later led to charges against him, three other officers and four enlisted Marines. The investigation was launched after Time magazine disputed the Marines' version that the deaths were combat-related.

After closing arguments by attorneys Monday, Conlin will review the evidence and forward a recommendation to Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis on whether Chessani should go to a court-martial on charges of dereliction of duty and disobeying an order. If convicted, Chessani could face two years in prison and dismissal from the Marines.

On Saturday, Chessani opted not to testify under oath, which would have allowed prosecutors to question him.

In a six-minute statement, Chessani said that even if he were to be court-martialed, his feelings for the Marine Corps would not be affected. "I still respect the Marine Corps and I have no hard feelings and I won't, regardless of how this comes out," Chessani said in a clear, almost emotionless voice.

Chessani addressed a key issue of the court hearing: why he didn't visit the three houses where his Marines killed 19 of the civilians, including three women and seven children. Conlin, a former infantry battalion commander, has quizzed several witnesses on the matter.

Chessani said that the day of the shootings was one of "nonstop action," with roadside bombings and firefights throughout Haditha and nearby communities.

He said that when he left his command center, he visited the site of the most significant battle of the day, a firefight in which up to 11 Marines were injured. It ended only when he called in an airstrike to demolish a building where insurgents were hiding, Chessani said.

Testimony by other witnesses indicated that Chessani never visited the three houses where the civilians were killed. The lieutenant who gave the order to "clear" the houses testified that Marines thought insurgent gunfire had come from the direction of the homes.

In his statement, Chessani did not say why he hadn't questioned his Marines about the killings.

Nor did he mention why he allowed a report to be filed that day with his superiors indicating erroneously that he had visited the site of the civilian killings.

Chessani, a Marine for 19 years, is the highest-ranking Marine officer to face charges from Iraq or Afghanistan. He was on his third tour in Iraq.

Several character witnesses praised Chessani for coolness under fire and truthfulness.

"He's a Christian, an upright man," Col. Brennan Byrne testified Saturday in a telephone call from Saudi Arabia. "As a Marine officer, he has shown impeccable integrity. I would trust him with my life."

tony.perry@latimes.com

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