- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 7, 2006

The Marine Corps’ top general, back from a rules-of-war lecture in Iraq, said yesterday he is “gravely concerned” about charges his troops deliberately killed 24 civilians in Haditha last November and an unarmed Iraqi in Hamdaniya in April.

But Gen. Michael Hagee, the Marine commandant, was tight-lipped during a brief session with reporters when asked what happened in both incidents. He accepted accountability as the general in charge of training and equipping Marines, but said he has not offered to resign.

Meanwhile, Hammurabi, a Sunni Muslim human rights group, continued to release what it says are details about the Marines’ Nov. 19 sweep through Haditha in al Anbar province after one of their combat buddies was killed by an improvised explosive device (IED).

Thaer al-Hadithi, a Hammurabi spokesman who says he was in Haditha that day, told the Associated Press in Baghdad that a small group of Marines went house to house killing civilians in apparent retaliation. Hammurabi obtained a video of the dead taken by an Iraqi journalism student and has shown the grisly scene to Western journalists.

Hammurabi has concluded that Marines of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Regiment, killed civilians in three houses and killed five men in a passing car.

Congressional sources say an investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) has confirmed that Marines killed civilians, but no official U.S. version of events has been released. The NCIS is expected to conclude its probe in August, at which time it will be up to a three-star Marine general at Camp Pendleton, Calif., to bring any charges, which could include capital murder.

A second investigation by Army Brig. Gen. Eldon Bargewell is examining whether there was a cover-up by Marines, either those at the scene or by their superiors. It seems clear the combat unit in Haditha filed a false report. The Marine 2nd Division put out a press release Nov. 20 saying 15 Iraqi civilians were killed by the IED and in an ensuing firefight. Officials now concede that version of events was inaccurate.

“I’m concerned anytime that there are allegations that we may have not done the right thing, whether it was on the battlefield or up the chain of command,” Gen. Hagee said. “That’s why we’re investigating both of those allegations.”

A Marine Corps spokesman at headquarters in the Pentagon told The Washington Times that Gen. Hagee and his staff were not informed of the Haditha charges until March, after the U.S. command learned of the accusations and had begun investigations. Key questions are whether the accusation reached senior commanders at Camp Fallujah, the Marine headquarters in western Iraq after Nov. 20 and, if so, what action they took.

In a separate killing in Hamdaniya, a defense attorney told reporters last week he expects the Marines to charge troops with murder.

Gen. Hagee spoke to 20,000 Marines in Iraq about the importance of ethics and living by the rules of war, which call for protecting noncombatants. “I was inspired when I talked with them,” he said. “They are focused on what they’re doing. They are making a difference. They are very proud of what they’re doing. And I can tell you, their families are very proud of what they’re doing.”

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