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Soldiers Cleared in Ishaqi Incident, Haditha Investigation Continues

June 2, 2006 at 4:35 PM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: Late today, Pentagon officials told reporters that a military probe had cleared U.S. troops of wrongdoing in a raid last March in the town of Ishaqi, north of Baghdad. A warning: This report contains some graphic footage.

It was one of three known incidents under investigation into allegations that U.S. troops deliberately killed Iraqi civilians and then covered up the circumstances. All three probes pitted an early official U.S. version of events against charges by Iraqis on the ground.

Today, Associated Press television news re-released this graphic on-scene footage shot shortly after the Ishaqi incident. The U.S. military had reported in March that four people died when U.S. forces, pursuing a suspected al-Qaida member, destroyed a house in a ground and air attack.

Iraqi police and some local residents charged that the U.S. raid killed 11 people, most of them women and children. They also said U.S. forces deliberately murdered the Iraqis and then tried to cover up what they’d done by blowing up the building on top of the dead bodies.

This Ishaqi resident, who claimed to have witnessed the event, didn’t want his face shown.

ISHAQI RESIDENT (through translator): Children were stuck in the room, alone and surrounded. After they handcuffed them, they shot them dead. Later, they struck the house with their planes. They wanted to hide the evidence. Even a six-month-old infant was killed.

No apparent misconduct

Eric Schmitt
The New York Times
[T]his is just breaking news, as you pointed out in your report, that the military is now exonerating the troops that were involved in this incident in early March of any type of wrongful death of civilians.

MARGARET WARNER: But late today, a Pentagon official told the NewsHour the investigation, quote, "didn't find any misconduct in the operation."

Separately, at Camp Pendleton in California, seven Marines and a Navy corpsman are being held in the brig, pending charges in connection with the shooting death of an Iraqi man in Hamandiyah, west of Baghdad, on April 26th.

And at least two investigations are under way into allegations that U.S. Marines murdered two dozen Iraqi civilians last November in the insurgent stronghold of Haditha and then provided false information about the deaths.

For an update on all of these investigations, we turn to New York Times Pentagon reporter Eric Schmitt.

Eric, welcome back.

ERIC SCHMITT, The New York Times: Thanks, Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: This Ishaqi incident, first of all, is it official? Have these troops been cleared?

ERIC SCHMITT: Well, again, this is just breaking news, as you pointed out in your report, that the military is now exonerating the troops that were involved in this incident in early March of any type of wrongful death of civilians.

This has been an issue that had been reported, as you said, in March. And, again, there were disputes. But what made this interesting was these were actually Iraqi police reports that accused the American soldiers of killing unarmed women and children.

So the military has gone back in and -- again, just this evening, as these press reports were resurfacing today in the new light of Haditha -- the military is now coming back to say that the Army investigation has exonerated these, but we're still pressing for more details about that.

The investigation's conclusion

Margaret Warner
NewsHour Senior Correspondent

MARGARET WARNER: Well, two questions on that. First of all, when was this investigation concluded? I mean, did it just conclude, or was this something some time back? Well, just start with that one.

ERIC SCHMITT: Again, this is unclear. Right now, this was brought to the attention of the authorities in Baghdad in mid-March, right after this incident happened, and right after the Iraqi police filed their report.

It had basically been lying dormant, I think, up until that point, until, again, with the incident of Haditha providing new context for these type of incidents, suddenly this report became fresh again, and the United States and the military was forced to respond to it.

Again, there weren't a lot of details about this report put out tonight. We're still trying and pressing on them.

MARGARET WARNER: And is there any caution that we should say here in the fact that there hasn't been an official statement clearing them? I mean, we've all been briefed on a background basis, essentially?

ERIC SCHMITT: Well, I think we're all being very careful right now in reporting this, because, of course, this was the initial response to the Haditha incident, was that this couldn't possibly be, that reports like this and reporters pressing this news were being dupes of the insurgents.

So I think right now, until we see more concrete evidence coming out of the Pentagon or the military in Baghdad, we still need to be pressing those questions.

Examining the investigation

Eric Schmitt
The New York Times
As for the cover-up, it's looking like at least members of the individual squad that was involved in the incident may well have passed falsified statements up the chain of command in their reporting chain...

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let's turn to the Haditha investigation, because that is the incident that's generated the most attention, obviously. Now, there are two probes going on. Where do each of those stand right now?

ERIC SCHMITT: Sure, there's one of the first probes, who's conducted by -- is being conducted by Major General Eldon Bargewell of the Army. This was the inquiry that was started shortly after the initial investigating officer went to the scene in Haditha and determined there were enough inconsistencies in the Marines' initial statements about how these civilians were killed that additional investigations were warranted.

So the number-two commander in Iraq, Lieutenant General Peter Chiarelli, ordered this investigation by General Bargewell to determine whether or not there was essentially a cover-up of the information that came out of this.

The second investigation that's going on is by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, and they are actually looking at the incident on the ground, the allegations that a small group of Marines shot and killed these 24 Iraqis in the town of Haditha last November.

The time frame of these investigations is a little uncertain right now. The military was hoping to present the investigation's findings to General Chiarelli as early as today in Baghdad. I'm told that has not happened, and it's going to be taking a little more time.

But even after General Chiarelli receives the findings of General Bargewell's inquiry, it's probably going to be at least a few weeks before he reviews them and sends them up his command of command, perhaps back to the Pentagon, as well, before there's any public release.

And we're told the second inquiry, the criminal inquiry conducted by the naval investigators, may not be completed until some time in July or later.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Congressman Murtha, as we know, was briefed by the Marine commandant and I think other Marine officials. And he has used -- in terms of the criminal side -- he has said murder was committed and, two, he has said a cover-up was committed.

How far along are these investigations? Are they that far? In other words, have they determined that, even if everyone's individual culpability hasn't been decided, that there was at least some unjustified homicide committed and that there was a deliberate effort to cover up the events afterwards?

ERIC SCHMITT: Well, again, military officials and congressional officials I've spoken to, who have been briefed, say they fully expect very serious charges to be filed against some number of these Marines, including homicide charges.

As for the cover-up, it's looking like at least members of the individual squad that was involved in the incident may well have passed falsified statements up the chain of command in their reporting chain, so there's where you might end up in the initial stages of a cover-up.

Exactly how high up the chain that goes is what General Bargewell and the Navy investigators, as well, are looking at.

Haditha has unearthed incidents?

MARGARET WARNER: Now, finally this third incident in Hamandiyah, and we just referred to that in the taped piece briefly. This took place, I think, April 26th, but already some Marines are in the brig in Camp Pendleton. What were the circumstances of that? And what crime is alleged to have been committed there?

ERIC SCHMITT: Well, we learned last night from some of the defense lawyers who are representing these Marines that they expect these seven Marines and the Navy corpsmen to be charged with murder, kidnapping and other charges, involving the slaying of an Iraqi man in that town in April.

And then what these Marines and Navy corpsmen are alleged to have done is then staged the incident and laid the dead Iraqi down and put an AK-47 next to him to make it look like he was an insurgent, when actually he was, apparently, just some Iraqi man that was killed.

We don't know how many people actually participated in the killing and how many may have known about it and did not report it; that's why there's probably as many as eight people here implicated so far.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, the senior Pentagon leadership that you speak with, do they think that there are more of these incidents taking place, that they have a growing problem with their troops on the ground in any way? Or is it simply that the Haditha incident now has unearthed a lot of other disputed incidents that ordinarily would be investigated, the soldiers cleared, and we would never hear about?

ERIC SCHMITT: I think, Margaret, it's a little bit of both. I think what you've seen so far is Haditha has brought to light some of the incidents that have been out there and thought were perhaps isolated or weren't given a whole lot of credence by the military.

Now the military is going back and looking through their files. Human rights groups, both in the United States and in Iraq, are going back and looking at their files to see what incidents may deserve greater scrutiny.

On the other hand, I think military leaders, both in Iraq and in Washington, recognize the stresses and strains that combat duty in Iraq pose. Just this week, for instance, Lieutenant General Chiarelli ordered mandatory sensitivity training for all coalition forces in Iraq right now, basically to go over things like cultural sensitivities with Iraqis, the stresses, the rules of war, and those important types of things, when you're dealing with combat situation. I think the Pentagon is looking at both those situations.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Eric, thank you so much, Eric Schmitt of the New York Times.

ERIC SCHMITT: Thank you.