Da The Boston Globe del 03/08/2006
Originale su http://www.boston.com/news/nation/articles/2006/08/03/us_probe_suggest...

US probe suggests coverup in Iraqi shootings

Marines may have deliberately killed civilians, officials say

di Bryan Bender

WASHINGTON -- Military investigators believe that there is enough evidence to suggest that members of a Marine Corps unit deliberately gunned down 24 civilians in the Iraqi town of Haditha last year, and that their commanders tried to cover it up , according to military officials. Prosecutors are now reviewing their initial findings to determine if the Marines' actions warrant criminal charges, the officials said.

Yet in the most detailed public recounting of the Haditha incident to date, a federal lawsuit filed by the leader of the squad claimed yesterday that the killings were an accident, portraying a Marine unit that was facing a grim but familiar dilemma in Iraq: hold their fire during an insurgent attack to avoid harming nearby civilians, or return fire and risk killing innocent bystanders.

The developments further fanned the controversy over whether US forces may have committed war crimes in Haditha after one of their comrades died in a roadside bombing, which triggered the incident.

In March, the Pentagon launched two separate probes of the Nov. 19 incident: one to find out exactly what happened that day, the other to determine if the squad's superiors buried evidence or turned a blind eye to discrepancies in the unit's initial report. The Marines had reported that the civilians died in the crossfire of their gun battle with insurgents.

Pentagon officials with close knowledge of the investigation, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the Naval Criminal Investigative Service has completed its preliminary investigation of the incident, and that the preliminary evidence is now being reviewed by military prosecutors. The three-star general in charge of the First Marine Expeditionary Force will ultimately determine, based on the evidence, whether to establish courts-martial for members of the squad, which is based at Camp Pendleton, Calif.

Marine General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters yesterday that the review of how commanders in Iraq handled the incident, headed by Major General Eldon Bargewell has been completed. Army General George Casey , the top commander in Iraq, is reviewing the voluminous report and will decide if any disciplinary action is warranted.

''With regard to the criminal investigation, that is ongoing, to the best of my knowledge," Pace said at a Pentagon briefing yesterday.

Meanwhile, lawyers representing the Marine squad leader said yesterday that the civilian casualties in Haditha -- which surfaced in March after Time magazine published Iraqi claims of war crimes -- were justified because insurgents had used the locals as human shields in their homes.

Staff Sergeant Frank D. Wuterich's version of events became public as part of a lawsuit he filed yesterday against Representative John P. Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat, a retired Marine Corps colonel and a blunt critic of the war. The suit accuses the congressman of defamation of character for accusing the Marines involved in the Haditha incident of ''cold-blooded murder and war crimes" -- even though the military's investigation wasn't finished and no charges had been filed.

Wuterich ''may, in fact, end up facing prosecution in part, or in whole, because of the negative and false portrait of his conduct that Mr. Murtha has created," according to the 23-page complaint filed in US District Court in Washington.

Murtha -- a decorated officer who was the first Vietnam veteran elected to Congress, and who is widely considered a staunch advocate for the military -- has been outspoken about the Bush administration's handling of the war and has called for a quick draw-down of US forces. He said he understood why Wuterich is defending himself ahead of any potential criminal charges.

''I don't blame the staff sergeant for lashing out," Murtha said in a statement his district office in Johnstown issued yesterday. ''When I spoke up about Haditha, my intention was to draw attention to the horrendous pressure put on our troops in Iraq and to the coverup of the incident."

Wuterich says he was commanding the four-vehicle convoy that was hit by a roadside bomb, killing one of his comrades. Wuterich said he ordered the convoy to stop; while assessing the situation, the squad saw an unmarked car full of ''military-aged men" lingering nearby. Ignoring the Marines' orders to stop, Wuterich said, the men ran from the vehicle, and the squad gave chase. According to the Marines' rules of combat, the squad opened fire and killed the men.

The first reinforcements to arrive found an unexploded bomb on a nearby route -- a sign that an ambush may be coming, according to the complaint. Then, the men came under attack, and the gunfire seemed to come from at least one nearby house; Wuterich led a four-man team in a counterattack, firing back and throwing grenades into the house, according to the lawsuit.

During that assault, the Marines inadvertently killed the civilians, who were inside, according to Wuterich's account.

When the Marines saw the men they believed were insurgents run to another dwelling, they attacked that house, too, leading to more civilian deaths, according to the lawsuit.

Wuterich said he radioed to his company commander that 12 to 15 civilians had been killed, then moved a small group of Marines to a nearby rooftop to observe the area.

A man dressed in black -- a typical insurgent uniform -- ran from one of the houses they had attacked and searched, according to the court documents. ''The Marines killed him," according to Wuterich's lawsuit.

''At no time did the Marines ignore pleas or cries from civilians to spare them," the complaint states. ''Any accusation that the Marines 'executed' civilians or deliberately targeted noncombatants is either a horrendous misunderstanding or [an] intentional lie."

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