- The Washington Times - Friday, June 2, 2006

The Pentagon announced yesterday that soldiers have been cleared in the March 15 deaths of four Iraqis in the town of Ishaqi, while a source close to the investigation into the killing of Iraqi civilians by U.S. Marines in Haditha said that probe will not end until August.

Officials said Army criminal investigators determined soldiers acted within the rules of combat when they fired on a house in Ishaqi and called in air strikes by an AC-130 gunship, because they were first fired upon by an al Qaeda in Iraq suspect inside.

The finding is a significant development for the U.S. command, which is under intense pressure from the international press and Iraqi politicians about three recent civilian killings in Haditha, Ishaqi and Hamandiya. In the latter, seven Marines and a Navy hospital corpsman are expected to be charged in the April 26 death of an Iraqi civilian.

Iraqi police said U.S. Army soldiers deliberately killed 11 Iraqi civilians in Ishaqi. But commanders said at the time that the police report was part of an attempt by some elements to discredit American troops and stir up resentment among locals. The United States said three civilians and one insurgent died as soldiers fired on the house.

Commanders also say insurgents spread rumors, through friendly press and over the Internet, of civilian killings that never happened.

A source closed to the Haditha investigation said the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) agents are still trying to piece together the complex series of events in the town northwest of Baghdad that left 24 civilians dead on Nov. 19.

Town residents have told reporters they witnessed Marines killing Iraqis after an insurgent-planted improvised explosive device killed a Marine on patrol. Rep. John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat, has said evidence shows the Marines killed the civilians in cold blood.

Marine sources said the explosive likely was planted by an Iraqi Sunni Muslim insurgent who operated out of Haditha, not a foreign fighter in the employ of al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab Zarqawi.

Defense attorneys told The Washington Times they expect one or more Marines from the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, at Camp Pendleton, Calif., to be charged with murder.

Once the NCIS probe is complete, it will fall on a senior commander — most likely Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, who heads the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force — to decide whether to bring charges, based on advice from his team of judge advocates general.

Yesterday, a senior military commander told reporters at the Pentagon that in fighting a vicious insurgency, such as the one in Iraq, there is always the chance troops “could snap” under the stress of battle. He was responding to a question about why a small number of troops have intentionally killed civilians.

“When you’re in the combat theater dealing with enemy combatants who don’t abide by the law of war, who do acts of indecency, soldiers become stressed, they become fearful,” said Army Brig. Gen. Donald Campbell, chief of staff for Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the top tactical commander in Iraq. “It’s very difficult to determine in some cases on this battlefield who is a combatant and who is a civilian. It doesn’t excuse the acts that have occurred, and we’re going to look into them. But I would say it’s stress, fear, isolation, and in some cases they’re just upset. They see their buddies getting blown up on occasion and they could snap.”

Gen. Campbell quickly added, “Let me say that 99.9 percent of the soldiers in the field are doing tremendous work every day and we’re very, very proud of them.”

He spoke to Pentagon reporters from Baghdad to explain Gen. Chiarelli’s decision to retrain all forces in ethical conduct and the rules of war, which include protecting non-combatants. Each soldier, Marine, airmen and sailor will get about four hours of retraining.

“Our forces receive this type of training prior to deployment, but many of us have been here from five to nine months and we felt it was prudent to conduct reinforcement training at this time,” Gen. Campbell said.

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