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Military Investigators Conclude U.S. Marines Murdered Civilians in Haditha

May 26, 2006 at 6:10 PM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: The first public reports of killings of civilians by U.S. Marines came in this video and accompanying story in Time magazine in March.

The images, captured by an Iraqi human rights group, are graphic: bloodstained rooms; bodies of victims, some wrapped in blankets and rugs, others at the morgue. The reported killings of as many as two dozen people took place November 19th in the town of Haditha, an insurgent stronghold 140 miles northwest of Baghdad.

The alleged Marine attack on civilian men, women and children came hours after a roadside bomb ambush killed one of their own, Lance Corporal Miguel Terrazas. His death was noted on the NewsHour honor roll on December 15th.

The first official account described civilian deaths from the roadside bombing and ensuing firefight between Marines and insurgents. At least two investigations were launched after Time magazine challenged that account.

The story gained wider circulation last week. Democratic Representative John Murtha, a former Marine colonel and decorated Vietnam War veteran, was among a group of senators and congressmen briefed by top Marines on the matter. He discussed some of the findings with reporters.

REP. JOHN MURTHA (D), Pennsylvania: It’s much worse than reported in Time magazine. There was no firefight. There was no IED that killed these innocent people. Our troops overreacted because of the pressure on them, and they killed innocent civilians in cold blood. And that’s what the report is going to tell.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yesterday, the commandant of the Marine Corps, General Michael Hagee, flew to Iraq to talk to his troops about the appropriate use of force. In a statement issued by his office, Hagee wrote: “We do not employ force just for the sake of employing force. We use lethal force only when justified, proportional and most importantly lawful.”

And late yesterday at the Capitol, after being briefed by top officials, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, a World War II veteran, had this to say.

SEN. JOHN WARNER (D), Virginia: Based on, I guess, now well over 30 years of experience with the military, I would rank this as quite serious.

JEFFREY BROWN: Congressional hearings are expected to begin soon.

On Wednesday, the U.S. military announced another criminal investigation. That one deals with an April 26th incident in which Marines allegedly killed an Iraqi civilian in Hamandiyah, west of Baghdad.

The sequence of events

Eric Schmitt
New York Times
This is up in the so-called Sunni triangle area... one of the hotbeds of resistance to the American occupation there... a trouble spot for the Marines in western Iraq for many months now.

JEFFREY BROWN: For more on all this, we go to New York Times Pentagon reporter Eric Schmitt.

Eric, what is known so far of the sequence of events on that November day?

ERIC SCHMITT, New York Times: Well, what we know to this point is that there was an IED attack that killed the young Marine that you mentioned. Shortly thereafter, it appears that a small group of Marines went looking for the perpetrator of that attack.

And, again, the initial reporting was that they were in a firefight; those reports have now been discredited. Instead, what it sounds like is this small group -- and it may be roughly 10 or so Marines -- went at least to two houses looking for possible insurgents and apparently -- again, according to preliminary investigations -- shot civilians inside these two homes.

Shortly after the IED attack, they also apparently stopped a taxi or car of some sort that approached them and either hauled out of the car or brought out of the car four or five civilians and shot -- who were then shot there, too.

Again, this all unfolded within some period of time, approximately three to five hours, we're told, again, from the initial reports. So it's not as if this was some sudden reaction to the attack. This appeared in -- one source told me yesterday to be a fairly methodical type of operation that they were conducting.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tell us a little bit more about Haditha, the town. This was a very dangerous place for quite a while, right?

ERIC SCHMITT: Right. This is up in the so-called Sunni triangle area, again, one of the hotbeds of resistance to the American occupation there. And it's been a trouble spot for the Marines in western Iraq for many months now.

And so this is one of these areas up there that the Marines have been trying to clear, increasingly with some Iraqi security forces, but this has been a problem, as many of these smaller villages and towns up in this area of western Iraq.

Finding the truth

Jeffrey Brown

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, the investigations that are under way, my understanding is that one of them is to look at what happened, and the other is to look at both what happened and a possible cover-up, is that right?

ERIC SCHMITT: That's correct. There is one that's being conducted by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service that is focusing on the events. What actually happened with apparently this squad of Marines? And they apparently are focused on the leader of that squad, a staff sergeant, apparently -- his name has not been revealed -- who was leading this operation after the IED attack.

One of the interesting things we learned in our investigation so far is that forensic evidence is shown that most of the civilians killed, the two dozen or so, apparently were killed from maybe just a couple of weapons. Again, so it focuses on that.

The second investigation is being conducted by an Army general. The Marines basically said, to avoid the appearance of investigating ourselves, they're turning it over to a general that's reporting to the second-ranking general in Iraq today, Lieutenant General Peter Chiarelli.

And that investigation, we're told, could be completed as soon as next week or shortly thereafter. And, again, that, as you've said, would look at the potential -- was information suppressed up the chain or was it covered up all together?

JEFFREY BROWN: And is there any information yet about the cover-up, how it might have taken place?

ERIC SCHMITT: No, it's quite -- still a lot of unknowns on this one. There was one lieutenant colonel and two captains who have been relieved of command, although the Marines have gone to great lengths to say it's not related to this investigation, although that seems to be clearly something that there is some kind of connection there, although the Marines are saying that it's not.

So it's a question of: Was this incident not reported? Or did these officers know about the information and didn't pass it on to their higher-ups? Or, as one source told me yesterday, in addition to that, could it have been also what they call "command climate"?

That is, was there such an aggressive climate created in this environment that, as very aggressive to go after insurgents, that the officers essentially lost control of their unit, in this case, of some of their enlisted Marines? These are the kind of things that the investigators are looking at, and there are many unknowns at this point.

Learning a lesson

Eric Schmitt
New York Times
The Marines are looking at this, the lessons learned from the whole Abu Ghraib scandal and trying to get to the bottom of this as quickly as they can.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK. The big question, of course, right now, is the possibility of murder charges against some of these Marines. What can you tell us about that?

ERIC SCHMITT: Again, from the preliminary investigation, what we heard from both military and congressional sources, if proven to be true, these allegations would suggest that there could be murder charges, premeditated murder charges brought against one or more Marines.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, from the tones of the comments we heard in our set-up piece from senators, and congressman, and from the fact that General Hagee went to Iraq so quickly, clearly people are taking this quite seriously. What are you hearing from the people you talk to about the extent of the concern?

ERIC SCHMITT: I think you hit it just right there. It's extraordinarily of concern, with the Marine commandant himself is personally briefing members of Congress on the House and Senate side this week, and then taking the step of flying to Iraq to look into this issue himself and, as you've said in your report, to state what, in terms of -- state what the rule of law and what really the rules are that Marines abide by.

So this is being taken quite seriously. Obviously, the Marines, I think, are looking at this, the lessons learned from the whole Abu Ghraib scandal and in trying to get to the bottom of this as quickly as they can. This also has the attention of, not just the Marines, but General John Abizaid, who's the senior commander overall in the Middle East, overall looking in Iraq.

So this has the attention of military officials here in Washington, as well as in Iraq and the region.

Another incident

JEFFREY BROWN: And what does happen next? Any indication of when these investigations would put out their report?

ERIC SCHMITT: Again, we were hearing there could be as early as next week on the Army report that would look at the potential for cover-up. These investigations, however, have a tendency to slip, as they have to be reviewed by superior officers. So it could be well into June before we see either the investigation results from the Army investigation or from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service investigation.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Eric, there was, as we said, this completely separate incident from April that was -- an investigation was just announced this week. So that, I guess, is just getting under way. What can you tell us about that?

ERIC SCHMITT: Little is known about that right now. It apparently involves just one Iraqi civilian, but clearly this is something that the Marines -- this popped up and was brought to their attention.

They're treating this quite seriously, as well, recognizing, you know, while these incidents are not connected -- they're in two different places -- but the fact that this does involve accusations of shooting of a civilian. They're taking that one quite seriously. Don't know as many details about that yet.

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

ERIC SCHMITT: You're welcome.