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Eight U.S. Troops Charged with Murder of Iraqi Civilian

June 21, 2006 at 6:05 PM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: And with me to discuss the murder charges filed today against seven Marines and one sailor, and other incidents, is New York Times Pentagon correspondent Eric Schmitt.

Eric, first describe the incident that is alleged to have taken place on April 26th?

ERIC SCHMITT, New York Times: The incident, Jeffrey, involves the seven Marines and one Navy Corpsman who are alleged in a pre-dawn raid to have pulled a 52-year-old Iraqi man from his home in this little village just west of Baghdad, near Abu Ghraib, actually, to march him out of house, to bind him, bind his feet and his hands, and to shoot him.

And then, basically, what they did was they buried him and then planted a shovel and an AK-47 automatic rifle next to him to make it look like he had been an insurgent who was killed in a gun battle. That was the story the Marines originally told. That quickly unraveled, however, and these guys have now been charged.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, my understanding is that it was family members of the Iraqi, Hasham Ibrahim Awad, his family members who went to authorities to tell them what happened. What do we know about the investigation and the evidence that has been found?

ERIC SCHMITT: Well, that’s correct. The family members came forward, as well as a neighbor who was — the Marines came and took the shovel and the rifle from. So they are also charged with larceny in this.

So the family members came forward, told this story. They ultimately had to go retrieve the body of their family member. Investigators quickly seized on this. And, again, when confronted, at least one or two of the Marines quickly confessed and their story unraveled.

Marines could be court marshaled

JEFFREY BROWN: And it is correct that the body of Mr. Awad was exhumed and examined?

ERIC SCHMITT: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK. So what are the seven Marines and the one sailor charged with now?

ERIC SCHMITT: Well, again, as you mentioned in your earlier report, it's a combination of charges, six or seven charges per Marine and Navy Corpsman, ranging from murder to kidnapping to conspiracy in this particular allegation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Originally, I understand more Marines had been held, 11 Marines. What do you know about that?

ERIC SCHMITT: Well, again they said at this news conference at Camp Pendleton, California, there were four other Marines who had been held briefly and then released, although they made clear in their statement that there was still an investigation ongoing in their case. So there may be more evidence that comes forward.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, all of these Marines and the sailor are now being held at Camp Pendleton. What's the process from here? What happens?

ERIC SCHMITT: Well, what you'll have is an Article 32 process, which is essentially the military equivalent of a grand jury investigation. As the spokesman at Camp Pendleton said, these are accusations now. They'll go into the next phase to determine whether this Article 32 process determines what to go forward next.

It could lead, ultimately, to court martial against these Marines, or you could have certain kinds of administrative punishment.

All have retained outside councel

JEFFREY BROWN: Not necessarily then that any or all of them would face court martial at this point?

ERIC SCHMITT: No, and it's hard to pre-judge this, although I think the military, at least the military prosecutors and investigators, believe they have fairly strong evidence.

JEFFREY BROWN: If it does go down, this further down the line, what are the possible penalties they face?

ERIC SCHMITT: Well, they could face the death penalty.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. And all, I understand, have retained outside counsel.

ERIC SCHMITT: Yes. And a number of lawyers were at the news conference today at Camp Pendleton.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what are they saying so far?

ERIC SCHMITT: Well, it's a little bit unclear. They're looking at the various circumstances and trying to sort through this evidence now, too.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. The second case occurred in May in Muthanna. Now, earlier in the week three U.S. soldiers were accused in the death of three Iraqi detainees. And today, a fourth was accused of murder. What do we know about that incident?

ERIC SCHMITT: Well, again, this is an incident that took place in a Sunni Arab village, a restive area, in the Salah ad Din province, in which case these three detainees were apparently apprehended by Army soldiers, the Third Brigade combat team of the 101st Airborne Division.

There are some reports -- Pentagon officials have told the New York Times that these detainees were actually let free briefly, so that it could be made to look like they were escaping, and then shot. These are some of the allegations right now.

Where does Haditha stand?

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, I have read that there are allegations that the soldiers also threatened other soldiers -- at least one other soldier not to talk?

ERIC SCHMITT: That's right. That's part of the conspiracy charge in this particular case, is that the three and now four soldiers basically threatened a fellow American soldier that, if he disclosed what happened, they would kill him, too.

JEFFREY BROWN: And one soldier apparently who did witness this did come forward. What do you know about that?

ERIC SCHMITT: Yes, we don't know a whole lot about that person. He came forward with allegations, and that's what led to these charges this week.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what happens now with this case?

ERIC SCHMITT: The same thing as with the Marines. This will go forward in that military grand jury process that I talked about. Again, this could also unfold in the type of penalties I described before.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, finally, there is the case that has received the most attention, Haditha, where 24 civilians were killed. Where does that stand?

ERIC SCHMITT: Well, there was a formal report that was done by a two-star army general, Eldon Bargewell. That report has now been forwarded to the number-two ranking American officer in Iraq, Lieutenant General Peter Chiarelli of the Army.

This is a voluminous report, a lengthy report. I'm told it's several volumes, several thousand pages, and so General Chiarelli, along with a few key members of his staff, including his top lawyer, are reviewing this right now to determine what steps we'll take next.

What is the Pentagon doing?

JEFFREY BROWN: Are they still looking at the question of the cover-up or what happened? What exactly are they looking at?

ERIC SCHMITT: Yes, General Chiarelli's investigation is looking at what happened at the reporting. What was the reporting like up the chain of command? Who knew what when, essentially? Was there a cover-up?

There was a report in today's Los Angeles Times that confirmed earlier in preliminary investigations that there were a number of red flags that should have gone off for senior members of the chain of command to investigate this, initial reports of 15 civilian casualties, and yet these were not adequately investigated or there were conflicting statements from Marines, again, that weren't adequately pursued.

So, again, these are some of the things General Chiarelli is looking at now. It could be several more days or even weeks before he has completed.

JEFFREY BROWN: What kind of red flags are you referring to? These are things that higher-ups should have seen along the way? What kind of things?

ERIC SCHMITT: Yes, we're talking about, first of all, the number of casualties involved, conflicting statements that Marines gave, in terms of what happened at the scene, and then the whole issue of payments that were made to the families, called bereavement payments, in sum total of about $38,000, and what kind of investigation was done to support those types of payments.

So a number of questions that were done, perhaps, a number of steps that were perhaps taken too routinely that weren't given adequate enough scrutiny as it moved up the chain of command.

JEFFREY BROWN: You put all these incidents together now, what are you sensing over there at the Pentagon, in terms of attitude, urgency, what happens next?

ERIC SCHMITT: Well, clearly, at all levels, certainly the Marine Corps, the commandant of the Marines, General Michael Hagee, has taken personal involvement on this. He's in Okinawa today, speaking as he has in a number -- over the last several days talking about values in the Marines and how to deal with civilians on the battlefield.

He's been on essentially a worldwide tour for the last few weeks doing that. But senior members of Secretary Rumsfeld's staff, in both in the Army, and the Navy, and the Marine Corps, are following this all closely, very sensitive, of course, to the fallout this will eventually have when this -- the report that General Chiarelli is reviewing, as well as a second report by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service that's looking at actual criminal conduct that might have been taken.

What happens when these reports are completed and their results made public? How will they be briefed to the media? How will they be briefed to Congress? And what would be some of the steps and recommendations that these reports lead to, as well as obviously any criminal charges?

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Eric Schmitt of the New York Times, thanks again.

ERIC SCHMITT: You're welcome, Jeffrey.