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Marine court hears dueling depictions of accused

January 30, 2008|David Zucchino | Times Staff Writer

CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — Two vastly different portrayals of a Marine special operations unit accused of firing on civilians in Afghanistan in March were presented Tuesday to a court of inquiry on the final day of a three-week investigation.

In closing statements, defense lawyers said the Marines had followed the rules of engagement while under a coordinated enemy attack, only to be falsely accused by gullible Army officials and duplicitous Afghans. A lawyer for the government described a rogue unit led by a commander who skirted orders in a rush to get into combat.

"Their boots didn't even have the dust of Afghanistan on them, and they already are worried about whether they had time to kill somebody," said Maj. Phillip Sanchez, describing Fox Company of Marine special operations when it arrived in Afghanistan in February.

The unit, the first Marine special operations company deployed in combat, had been in Afghanistan for three weeks when it opened fire after a car bomb exploded 15 feet from its convoy. One Marine was slightly injured in the suicide attack March 4.

Sanchez, saying several Marines in the convoy had lied to investigators about a related incident, suggested that they also lied when they told the court of inquiry that Humvee gunners had fired only at enemy gunmen after the car bombing. He said the convoy's commander, Capt. Vincent J. Noble, had lied when he denied to investigators that he told his troops to stop firing.

Sanchez said the company's commander, Maj. Fred C. Galvin, was so eager for "aggressive combat operations" that he nicknamed his unit "Task Force Violence." Galvin had " 'go' fever," Sanchez said, instilling a false sense of urgency as the company strove to establish itself as a "world class" special operations unit.

"They needed to prove themselves, and they weren't going to let anyone get in their way," Sanchez said.

The U.S. Army commander in eastern Afghanistan has said the Marines killed 19 civilians and wounded 50. An Afghan human rights group said the convoy fired indiscriminately at civilian vehicles and bystanders.

Lawyers for the Marines said that the number of dead was far fewer -- and that there was no hard proof that Marines had killed anyone.

No one has been charged. The three-officer court of inquiry heard testimony this month from nearly 50 witnesses while investigating the actions of Galvin and Noble.

The court of inquiry will report its findings to a Marine general, who will decide on further action, if any. It could be several weeks before a decision is announced, officials said.

Lawyers for Galvin and Noble said enemy gunmen fired on the 30-man convoy as part of a "complex ambush." They said the Marines returned "focused, measured and disciplined" fire, shooting only at gunmen.

Marine gunners obeyed rules of engagement, the lawyers said. They used hand signals to ward off approaching traffic, fired warnings and shot into vehicle engine blocks. The lawyers said the Marines fired as a last resort to save comrades, and out of fear of a second car bomb.

If any civilians were hit, they said, it was not intentional -- and blame should be placed on enemy gunmen hiding behind civilians.

The lawyers said many Afghans lied about being shot in hopes of receiving cash payments from the U.S. military meant to express condolences. False or exaggerated accounts produced inflated casualty totals, they said.

"They are trying to rob us here," an Afghan translator working for the U.S. wrote on a 66-page Afghan government report listing alleged victims' accounts. "It sounds like there is some kind of conspiracy going on."

At the same time, the lawyers said, the Taliban routinely invented or exaggerated civilian casualties as a propaganda tool.

"These good Marines have had all those casualty numbers hung around their necks," Noble's lawyer, Knox Nunnally, told the court of inquiry.

Nunnally said the number of dead Afghans was perhaps "in the low single figures," with a much lower number of wounded than earlier reported.

Galvin's lawyer, Mark Waple, listed dozens of pieces of evidence that he said proved the Marines had come under fire and told the truth about it. He said the convoy reported an ambush and enemy gunfire minutes after the blast.

Those reports should be considered truthful under military law because they were spontaneous, "excited utterances," Waple said. He said the Marines had no opportunity to concoct a false story.

Waple said the Air Force colonel who led an Army investigation into the incident relied on the Afghan provincial governor to determine who was allegedly killed or wounded by Marines. He said the colonel did not challenge or investigate claims by Afghans.

He said the U.S. military made payments to the families of 17 dead listed by the governor, but a later Navy investigation put the number of dead at five to seven. And despite reports that children and women had been killed, Waple said, testimony produced only a wounded 16-year-old boy and a woman with a hand injury.

"Is it possible that some rounds went astray? Absolutely," Nunnally said. But no Marine intentionally fired at a civilian, he said, and the Marines regretted any loss of life.

Nunnally said that because of a flawed Army investigation and a "culture of lying" in Afghanistan, "these Marines have not been treated fairly. They deserve a square deal."

david.zucchino@latimes.com

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