Friday 18 August 2006
Washington - A high-level military investigation into the killings of 24 Iraqis in Haditha last November has uncovered instances in which American marines involved in the episode appear to have destroyed or withheld evidence, according to two Defense Department officials briefed on the case.
The investigation found that an official company logbook of the unit involved had been tampered with and that an incriminating video taken by an aerial drone the day of the killings was not given to investigators until Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the second-ranking commander in Iraq, intervened, the officials said.
Those findings, contained in a long report that was completed last month but not made public, go beyond what has been previously reported about the case. It has been known that marines who carried out the killings made misleading statements to investigators and that senior officers were criticized for not being more aggressive in investigating the case, in which most or all of the Iraqis who were killed were civilians. But this is the first time details about possible concealment or destruction of evidence have been disclosed.
The report's findings have been sent to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, which is investigating members of the unit involved in the killings, as well as higher-ranking officers in the Second Marine Division. No charges have been brought yet.
The report, based on an investigation by Maj. Gen. Eldon A. Bargewell of the Army, does not directly accuse marines of attempting a cover-up, but it does describe several suspicious incidents, according to the Defense Department officials.
It says that the logbook, which was meant to be a daily record of major incidents the marines' company encountered, had all the pages missing for Nov. 19, the day of the killings, and that those portions had not been found, the officials said.
No conclusions are drawn about who may have tampered with the log. But the report says that Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich, the leader of the squad involved in the killings, was on duty at the unit's operations center, where the logbook was kept, shortly after the killings occurred, the officials said.
Neal A. Puckett, a lawyer for Sergeant Wuterich, was unavailable to comment.
Investigators were also initially told by Marine officers that videotape taken by the drone was not available, one of the officials said. The officials added that the marines produced the tape only after General Bargewell had completed his inquiry and they had been asked again to produce it by General Chiarelli.
The report has been closely held within the Defense Department, and the officials who agreed to discuss it did so because they said they thought it should receive wider public attention. They agreed to speak only if their names were not published because they had not been authorized by superiors to discuss its contents.
The deaths occurred outside the town of Haditha after a three-vehicle convoy of marines was hit by a roadside bomb, killing a lance corporal. The squad then began going through houses nearby, killing Iraqis found inside in what defense lawyers have said was a justifiable use of lethal force by marines who believed they were under concerted attack by insurgents.
The Marine Corps issued a press release the next day saying that 15 of the civilian deaths had been caused by the bomb explosion. But several officers in the unit have said they knew even then that marines had killed all 24 of the dead Iraqis, 9 of whom were suspected insurgents.
Since then, the idea that any of the victims were insurgents has been challenged, both by Iraqi survivors and by some American military officials familiar with the case, noting that the victims included 10 women and children and an elderly man in a wheelchair. They have said that evidence suggests that the marines overreacted after the death of their fellow marine and shot the civilians in cold blood.
Marines have told investigators that at least one Iraqi who was shot was brandishing an AK-47 assault rifle. But no records were found that such a weapon was recovered at the scene and turned in to the unit's headquarters, as regulations require, the officials said.
Lt. Col. Sean Gibson, a Marine Corps spokesman, said: "The Marine Corps is committed to a full and thorough investigation of the events that occurred at Haditha on Nov. 19, and the actions that followed that may have contributed to any improper reporting. If allegations of wrongdoing are substantiated, the Marine Corps will pursue appropriate legal and administrative actions."
The decision about whether to take disciplinary action will be made by Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis, the commander of Marine Corps units in the Middle East, based on his review of both the Bargewell report and the results of the criminal investigation still under way.
In addition to faulting officers in the Second Marine Division for not aggressively investigating the Haditha killings, the Bargewell report said the commanders had created a climate that minimized the importance of Iraqi lives, particularly in Haditha, where insurgent attacks were rampant, the officials said.
"In their eyes, they didn't believe anyone was innocent," said one of the officials, describing the attitude of the marines in the unit toward Iraqis. "Either you were an active participant, or you were complicit."
Two days after the Haditha killings, Maj. Gen. Richard A. Huck, then the division commander, asked his staff for a briefing on what had happened, the officials said. General Huck later told investigators that he had ordered the briefing because he was concerned about the reports of civilian casualties, one of the officials said.
But the briefing provided to General Huck contained no mention of the civilian casualties, the investigators learned. Instead, according to one of the officials, it dealt almost entirely with the roadside bomb attack and other insurgent attacks on marines in Haditha throughout the day.
General Huck and other officers from the Second Marine Division have been ordered not to talk about the case, and a telephone call to the unit was referred to Colonel Gibson, the Marine spokesman. But some senior officers have previously defended their response to the killings, saying there was no reason to doubt the account provided by enlisted marines at the time, contending that civilian killings were an unfortunate but accidental byproduct of their pursuit of insurgents.
The involved marines' battalion commander, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani, and their company commander, Capt. Lucas McConnell, told investigators that they had not reviewed the scene within the houses after the killings, despite the high number of civilian casualties, one of the officials said. Colonel Chessani was relieved of his command in April; Marine officials would not say whether the Haditha case was involved in the decision but said there were several reasons.
The video taken by the overhead drone was very limited, according to one of the officials. The aircraft was not flying over the site until after the bomb attack, so it only captured the aftermath. Even so, the video appears to contradict statements by marines about what occurred, the officials said.
In particular, it has raised doubts about a claim by enlisted marines that five Iraqis were shot as they were running away after the roadside bombing.
The officials said the video showed the bodies of the five Iraqis on the ground close to the car that they had been riding in, the officials said. In one case, the video appears to show one body stacked on top of another, which the officials said was inconsistent with the account that the men had been shot while fleeing.