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Senate Plans Committee to Probe into Haditha Slayings by Marines

May 29, 2006 at 6:10 PM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: Joint Chiefs Chairman Peter Pace joined President Bush this morning in honoring America’s war heroes at Arlington National Cemetery.

PETER PACE, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs: For more than 230 years, men and women have given their lives in the service of this country.

MARGARET WARNER: But hours earlier, the marine general was performing duty of a different sort on several morning news programs. His message: The military will get to the bottom of what happened last November 19th.

That’s when, witnesses say, 24 Iraqi civilians were gunned down by U.S. Marines in the insurgent stronghold of Haditha, northwest of Baghdad.

PETER PACE: We need to make sure that we in the Armed Forces and those who observe us understand that, if that were — if that did happen, it’s an anomaly.

Swift response from Washington

MARGARET WARNER: The incident began when Marine LanceCorporal Miguel Terrazas was killed by an IED explosion. The military initiallyreported that several Iraqis died during a firefight that followed.

But in March, Time magazine published a very differentaccount of the event, saying the Marines killed many civilians during a rampagethrough several houses and an attack on a taxi. Time released this graphicfootage of the aftermath of the killings, obtained from an Iraqi human rightsgroup.

Yesterday, Democratic Congressman John Murtha, a formerMarine colonel, told ABC's "This Week" he had no doubt that themilitary had engaged in a cover-up.

REP. JOHN MURTHA (D), Pennsylvania:We don't know how far it goes. I mean, it goes right up the chain of command,right up to General Pace. When did he know about it? Did he order the cover-up?Who ordered the cover-up?

I'm sure he didn't, but who said, "We're not going topublicize this thing; we're not even going to investigate it"? UntilMarch, there was no serious investigation. This investigation should have beenover two or three weeks afterwards, and it should have been made public, andpeople should have been held responsible for it.

MARGARET WARNER: Asked to respond to Murtha's charges ofcover-up, General Pace said that investigations were launched right after thePentagon top brass learned of the incident around February 10th.

"We do not know yet why we did not know about theincident until then," he said. There are two military investigations underway: one, a criminal probe into what happened; the second into whether acover-up occurred.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warneryesterday cautioned against prejudging the outcome of the probes. But he didexpress concern over how the military brass had handled the situation.

SEN. JOHN WARNER (D), Virginia: There is this seriousquestion, however, of what happened, and when it happened, and what was theimmediate reaction of the senior officers in the Marine Corps when they beganto gain knowledge of it. I mean senior by the captains, the majors, thelieutenant colonels, and on up the chain.

MARGARET WARNER: Warner said his committee will holdhearings into the events next month, after the investigations are completed.

Eye-witness accounts

Richard Oppel
New York Times

For more on what happened that day in Haditha, we turn toRichard Oppel of the New York Times in Baghdad.He co-authored a piece in today's Times based on interviewers with survivors ofthe incident.

Richard Oppel, welcome. Tell us what the survivors of thisincident told you all about how this began and how it unfolded that day.

RICHARD OPPEL, The New York Times: Hi, Margaret. Well, whatthey told us was that, on this morning, early in the morning of November 19th,basically that the Marines, that the American troops went to three homes inHaditha in succession, killing people in each of those homes, and also killingfive people in a taxi near the same site.

In the first home, one of the survivors was a nine-year-oldgirl named Iman, who said she hid with her younger brother under the bed whileall this was taking place.

In the second home, a 13-year-old girl who survived, SafaYounis Salim, told us that she survived by basically hiding under the body ofone of her relatives who was bleeding on her.

In the third house, the widow of one of four brothers saidthat the four brothers were killed in that house while the women in the househad been taken outside. And they heard gunshots while they were outside comingfrom the house.

And then the details on the taxi are a little less clear,but basically what the survivors and neighbors in this area said was that ataxi with four college students and a taxi driver -- that all five of them werealso shot in the same vicinity about the same time.

Awaiting the final report

MARGARET WARNER: Now, all this, I gather, from what membersof Congress have said to us and other accounts was triggered by the IEDexploding under the Humvee of this one lance corporal. And then how much timeelapsed -- is that correct, first of all? And then how much time elapsedbetween that and when the Marines started going in these different houses?

RICHARD OPPEL: That's right. At about 7:15 in the morning, alarge roadside bomb exploded as a convoy was passing. It killed a LanceCorporal Miguel Terrazas from El Paso.

And what unfolded -- it's a little unclear how long it took.Some military officials and people in Congress who have been briefed on theinvestigation have said that all of this unfolded over a couple of hours. Itmay have been three, four, even five hours, start to finish.

We don't have any way of being certain of that, of course. AndI suppose the final report will discuss that, but that's what people who havebeen briefed on the investigation have said.

MARGARET WARNER: And I gather that there was -- at least onevery old person was among those killed and some children?

RICHARD OPPEL: That's right. That's what we've heard, bothstateside from military officials and congressional officials who have beenbriefed on the findings of the investigation to this point. And we also heardthat from witnesses and neighbors in Haditha.

Evidence of a cover-up?

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the original account that the Marinespokesman released the day after this event said that, after the IED exploded,there were gunmen who opened fire on the convoy, and essentially that afirefight took place. Now, did any of the survivors say that there had beengunfire exchanged between any of the people in the houses and the Marines?

RICHARD OPPEL: No, none that I have talked to. Now, theMarines -- it's a little unclear on what the investigators are finding on this.The military has said that at least, in one of the homes, they believe someonehad a gun or was reaching for a gun.

But they've also -- in the briefings that have been given tomilitary officials and congressional officials in the last week or so,basically what those briefings have indicated is that the shootings were --that they believe the investigation will find that the shootings wereunprovoked.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, Congressman Murtha said yesterday,as sort of evidence in his view that there was some cover-up, that, after thefact, the military did pay the families of most of these victims. Have youlearned anything about that?

RICHARD OPPEL: Well, we know a few things about that. It'sour understanding that payments of up to $2,500 per victim were paid torelatives of what we believe were two of the families, a total of about 15people. It's not uncommon for the military to pay payments to people who were-- to innocent people who were killed.

But what we understand is that, you know, there are twodifferent investigations. One is an actual investigation, a criminalinvestigation of what actually happened to these people. And the secondinvestigation is an investigation into whether there was a cover-up and whetheror not these events were properly reported up the chain of command.

And that investigation, we're told, one of the areas offocus of that investigation is whether these payments were made -- you know,because these payments have to be approved up the chain of command -- whetherpeople up the chain of command should have been asking questions about whythese payments were being made.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Richard Oppel of the New YorkTimes, thank you.

RICHARD OPPEL: Thank you very much, Margaret.