- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 25, 2006

Defense attorneys expect the Marine Corps to file murder charges against one or more Marines who conducted raids in Haditha in November that resulted in the deaths of more than 20 Iraqi civilians, according to sources close to the investigation.

The sources said agents of the Naval Criminal Investigative Services (NCIS) have been interviewing members of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, at Camp Pendleton, Calif. Attorneys there are mobilizing for the possible defense of a dozen Marines.

The battalion conducted the sweeps of homes on Nov. 19, after one of its members was killed by an improvised explosive device (IED).

The Marines’ operating procedures call for an immediate search for the source of an IED attack. This is especially true in Haditha, a hotbed of Sunni insurgents and foreign terrorists who operate out of residents’ homes.

At least two 3rd Battalion Marines have hired civilian criminal defense lawyers in anticipation of being charged, and another Marine, who led troops in the raids, has made overtures to a private lawyer.

The commander of the 1st Marine Division already has relieved the 3rd Battalion commander and two of his company commanders. Sources said the action does not necessarily mean the officers — a lieutenant colonel and two captains — played a direct role in the raids. A division spokesman said the general lacked confidence in their leadership.

Sources stressed that the Marine Corps is awaiting the NCIS’ final investigative report and that no decision has been made to bring murder charges by prosecutors at Camp Pendleton. But these sources say they expected murder charges against one or more Marines. One source said prosecutors might seek the death penalty.

Lt. Col. Sean Gibson, a spokesman for U.S. Marine forces, Central Command, said, “There is an ongoing investigation, therefore any comment at this time would be inappropriate and could undermine the investigatory and possible legal process.”

If charges are filed, Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, who commands the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force at Pendleton and is Central Command’s top Marine, likely would be tapped to serve as what the military calls the convening authority. He would oversee disciplinary proceedings, including any courts-martial.

The Marine Corps initially issued a statement Nov. 20 disclosing the Haditha raids, that 15 Iraqi civilians had been killed by an IED blast and that a firefight followed.

Time magazine investigated the deaths earlier this year and found that the civilians — including women and children — were not killed by a bomb, but by Marines’ gunfire. Time took its information to the U.S. military command in Baghdad, which then ordered the NCIS criminal probe.

Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, top operational commander in Iraq, also ordered Army Brig. Gen. Eldon Bargewell to do an administrative investigation into the chain of command’s role in misreporting the incident. He also is investigating Marine operations in Anbar, the country’s most restive Sunni province, and how Marines are trained to sweep villages and distinguish insurgents from civilians.

The Pentagon was rocked last week when Rep. John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat and a former Marine, used the Haditha killings to argue, as he has for six months, for a U.S. troop pullout from Iraq.

“Our troops overreacted because of the pressure on them, and they killed innocent civilians in cold blood,” Mr. Murtha said. “That’s what the report is going to tell.”

He said he had been briefed by Marine commanders.

His blunt accusation stunned senior Pentagon officials. They are still awaiting a final report and fear his description of Marines as cold-blooded killers could unduly influence commanders who will have to decide whether to file criminal charges.

The Marines have briefed senior members of Congress on the probe.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter, California Republican, held a press conference last week to warn reporters.

“I don’t want to see our troops tarred by whatever happens with this investigation, by the activities of one squad, in one place, on one morning.

“There has been no war in our history in which you didn’t have incidents in which people did the wrong thing at one time or another,” said Mr. Hunter, a strong supporter of the Bush administration’s war policy.

One source close to the investigation said that although there is video of the bodies showing gunshot wounds, it doesn’t necessarily mean the civilians were deliberately slain. The source said the victims could have been killed inadvertently during gunbattles with insurgents.

Asked whether any Marine committed murder that day, the source said, “I don’t think anybody in that unit feels that or believed it at the time.”

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