The First Haditha Charges

The First Haditha Charges
As many as six Marines who were on the ground the day of the alleged massacre of 24 Iraqi civilians, as well as their superiors, could face serious charges on Thursday
By SALLY B. DONNELLY/WASHINGTON

Inquiry: Cleared of Wrongdoing?
Profile: The Face of Haditha

Posted Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2006
More than a year after the alleged massacre of 24 Iraqi civilians by U.S. troops in the town of Haditha, the Marine Corps will announce formal charges tomorrow. Up to six Marines who were on the ground that day, including Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, are expected to be charged with a range of offenses, which may include negligent homicide. Mark Zaid, one of Wuterich’s two civilian defense attorneys, said, “We look foward to having a formal opportunity to publicly clear our client’s name as he is absolutely innocent of any forthcoming charges. What Sgt. Wuterich is guilty of is serving this nation honorably and reasonably acting as he felt he was trained to do.” The lawyer for Capt. Lucas McConnell has said he expects his client to be charged, perhaps with dereliction of duty, although McConnell was not at Haditha that day.

One source tells TIME the highest-level officer to be charged (most likely with dereliction of duty) will be Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani, the battalion commander in Haditha, who also was not on the ground that day. Attempts to reach Chessani for comment were not successful. But according to one civilian defense lawyer, the Marines will not be held in pre-trial confinement, which he takes an indication that the charges may not be as severe as some have expected. “They have put other Marines in other cases in the brig before trial, but they are not apparently doing that in the Haditha case. If these Marines are the mass murderers some have claimed they are, then you would think they would want to confine them.”

The charges, which will be announced at the Marine Corps base at Camp Pendleton, California, stem from the bloody incident in Haditha, 60 miles north of Baghdad, on November 19, 2005. After Marine Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas was killed by a powerful insurgent bomb which struck a Marine convoy, his fellow squad members killed 24 Iraqis, including some who local civilians claim were innocents simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Marines initially reported that only 15 Iraqis had died, and that they had been killed by a roadside bomb. Senior Marine officers did not investigate the deadly incident until TIME first raised questions in March.

Since then, Haditha has been the subject of two separate investigations. One, conducted by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, looked for criminal wrongdoing and focused on the Marines on the ground at Haditha. The second, conducted by Army Major General Eldon Bargewell, examined how the commanders responded to the event. Sources tell TIME that the investigations have been hampered by the refusal of at least two of the Marines to answer questions before charges are filed.

Many, if not all, of the Marines involved in Haditha will likely challenge the charges in court; all of them will get at least one military defense lawyer, and some of the Marines have already hired civilian defense lawyers — or plan to — as well. The trials will not begin until after the first of the year.

The shocking allegations over Haditha have, not surprisingly, sparked a wide range of strong reactions inside the Marine Corps. Many Marines think the squad on the ground that day overreacted and has brought dishonor to the Corps. “It looks like these Marines lost it and if that is the case, the Corps doesn’t accept that,” says one senior Marine officer. Others point out that Iraq is the one of the most complex battlefields the American military has ever fought in—and tried to do it with too few troops. “What do we expect of young Marines who are executing a failed strategy in a place where civilians routinely hide the enemy?” asked one Marine officer who served in Iraq.

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