CAMP PENDLETON — A Marine lieutenant testified Wednesday that he had never considered that Marines might have done anything wrong in killing 24 people in the Iraqi town of Haditha, even as he found the bodies of two women and six children huddled on a bed.
Lt. Max Frank, who had been ordered to take the bodies to the city morgue, said he assumed that the Marines had "cleared" three houses of suspected insurgents according to their standing orders -- by throwing in fragmentation grenades and entering with blasts of M-16 fire.
The smoke from the grenades, Frank said, would have kept the Marines from seeing that they were firing on women and children.
"It was unfortunate, but I had no reason to believe anything they had done was on purpose," Frank said during a videotaped deposition.
His testimony came on the first day of an Article 32 hearing, akin to a preliminary hearing, for Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani. The Haditha killings are seen as the largest atrocity allegation against U.S. troops in Iraq.
Chessani, 43, is charged with dereliction of duty and violating a lawful order for not ordering a complete investigation of the incident as a possible war crime. He was the commanding officer of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, but was relieved of command during the investigation that led to charges against him, three other officers and four enlisted Marines.
The military ordered an investigation only after Time magazine published a lengthy report that contradicted the Marines' initial account portraying the deaths on Nov. 19, 2005, as the result of a roadside bombing and crossfire between Marines and insurgents.
Sgt. Maj. Edward Sax, who was the battalion's senior enlisted man, testified Wednesday that he assumed Chessani had conducted an investigation immediately after the incident. Later, he said, he asked Chessani whether "the Marines had done the right thing."
Chessani replied, " 'Everything was OK,' " Sax said.
Sax indicated his confidence was shaken after he heard that the squad leader, Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, had told his Marines to "shoot first and ask questions later."
"That's a bad and damning comment to make for a Marine leader," Sax said.
Wuterich faces 12 charges of unpremeditated murder for using "deadly force without conducting positive identification" to determine that the persons in the house, and in a car outside, were insurgents.
The prosecution asserts that Wuterich's squad went on a rampage after a roadside bomb went off under a Humvee in his convoy, killing a Marine. The 24 slain Iraqis included three women and seven children. Defense attorneys say that the Marines were "clearing" houses after coming under gunfire from one of the homes.
Frank testified that he saw no indication that insurgents had been using the houses. He said he saw no weapons and no shell casings during the 10 hours he was on the scene.
Chessani's attorneys say that their client's superiors were aware that women and children had been killed and yet opted not to order an investigation. The attorneys allege that residents of Haditha, a town 130 miles northwest of Baghdad in Al Anbar province, concocted a story to obscure the fact that they were helping insurgents.
"The terrorists are laughing in their caves," Brian Rooney, one of Chessani's lawyers, told reporters. "This is what they want: For us to put each other on trial. This is the culmination of their propaganda campaign that began Nov. 19," the day of the incident.
Marines ordered to remove the bodies "were really disturbed about it" and said such things as "Hey, this is really gross," Frank said.
Hours later, Frank testified, officers talked about what to say in explaining the incident to the town elders in Haditha, a onetime insurgent stronghold in the Euphrates River Valley.
He said a fellow lieutenant told him, "We should explain it as an unfortunate thing that happens when terrorists use your homes to attack our forces."
Frank testified under immunity. Other Marines have received similar protection. One of the four enlisted Marines initially charged in the killings has had charges dropped in exchange for his testimony.
The hearing officer, Col. Christopher Colin, an infantry officer, will make a recommendation to Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis, commanding officer of Marines Forces Central Command, on whether the case should proceed to court-martial, be dropped or be handled through administrative procedures. The hearing is expected to take at least a week.