The Marine Corps' top general yesterday left Washington for Iraq, where he will lecture Marines on the importance of fighting Iraqi insurgents and foreign terrorists by the rules.
Gen. Michael W. Hagee's trip comes as members of a Marine battalion, based at Camp Pendleton, Calif., are under investigation in the deaths of more than 20 Iraqi civilians, some of them women and children, in the town of Haditha.
The fact that the Marine commandant is dedicating his trip to reinforcing the need to refrain from war crimes underscores the severity of what happened Nov. 19 in Haditha, a known haven for insurgents and al Qaeda in Iraq fighters who regularly attack Marines.
Gen. Hagee said in a message to his troops, "We do not employ force just for the sake of employing force. We use lethal force only when justified, proportional and, most importantly, lawful. ... We protect the noncombatants we find on the battlefield."
Rep. John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat and a decorated Marine veteran, told reporters last week that Marines killed "innocent civilians in cold blood." Sources close to the investigation told The Washington Times that defense attorneys expect one or more Marines to be charged with murder.
A Marine Corps statement announced Gen. Hagee's departure for Iraq, where he will "reinforce the ideals, values and standards for which Marines have been known for more than 200 years."
The Corps is bracing for the worst, congressional sources say, and are regularly briefing members of Congress. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) will likely complete its investigation this summer.
Senate Armed Services Chairman John W. Warner, Virginia Republican, has been briefed by Gen. Hagee and yesterday convened a closed committee briefing from Brig. Gen. John Kelly.
"There are established facts that incidents of a very serious nature did take place," Mr. Warner told reporters afterwards." He spoke of "very, very serious allegations, and there have been facts substantiated to date to underpin those allegations as to what occurred."
Gen. Hagee said in his message that "To a Marine, honor is more than just honesty. It means having uncompromising personal integrity and being accountable for all actions. To most Marines, the most difficult part of courage is not the raw physical courage that we have seen so often on today's battlefield. It is rather the moral courage to do the 'right thing' in the face of danger or pressure from other Marines."
The events in Haditha began when a Marine was killed by an improvised explosive device (IED) while on patrol. The Marines -- members of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment -- launched quick, house-to-house raids to try to find the insurgents who made and planted it. During the operation, perhaps as many as two dozen Iraqi civilians were killed.
Haditha lies west of Baghdad, in the Anbar province, which is patrolled by about 20,000 Marines who face constant attacks. In the fog of combat, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish Iraqi civilians from hardened al Qaeda terrorists.
"The nature of this war with its ruthless enemies and its complex and dangerous battlefield will continue to challenge us in the commitment to our core values," Gen. Hagee said. "We must be strong and help one another to measure up. The war will also test our commitment to our belief in the rule of law."
As the Haditha investigation was in full bore, the Marines announced this week a second criminal probe in the death of an Iraqi civilian last month near Baghdad.