Top U.S. officers seemed to mislead on Haditha

The Baltimore Sun

Recently unclassified documents suggest that senior officers viewed the killings of 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha in late 2005 as a potential public relations problem that required an immediate and misleading response to prevent insurgents from using it as propaganda against the U.S. military effort.

"We knew the, you know, the strategic implications of being permanently present in Haditha and how badly the insurgents wanted us out of there," said Col. R. Gary Sokoloski, in a sworn statement to investigators in March 2006.

Sokoloski, a lawyer who served as chief of staff to Maj. Gen. Richard A. Huck, the division commander, approved a news release about the killings that investigators suggested was "intentionally inaccurate" because it stated, contrary to the facts at hand at the time, that the civilians had been killed by an insurgent's bomb. Sokoloski told investigators that he believed that the news release was accurate as written.

"At the time, given the information that was available to me and the objective to get that out for the press" before insurgents put out their own information, "that is what we went with," he said.

The need to defeat enemy propaganda played a role in decisions by senior Marine commanders, including Col. Stephen W. Davis, a highly regarded regimental commander under Huck, to play down questions about the civilian killings from a Time magazine reporter last year, the documents show.

"Frankly, what I am looking at is the advantage he's giving the enemy," Davis said of the reporter, Tim McGirk, whose article in March 2006 was the first to report that Marines had killed civilians in Haditha, including women and children. In their sworn statements, Huck and his subordinates say they dismissed McGirk's inquiries because they saw him as a naive conduit for the mayor of Haditha, whom the Marines believed to be an insurgent.

Four officers were charged with failing to properly investigate the civilian killings. The first hearing against one of the officers, Capt. Randy W. Stone, is set for Tuesday morning, in a military courtroom at Camp Pendleton, Calif. Three enlisted Marines are charged with the killings. Their hearings, to determine whether the charges warrant general courts-martial, are set to begin in the coming weeks.

As Marine Corps prosecutors prepare their evidence against Stone and his fellow officers, the unclassified documents suggest that senior Marine commanders dismissed, played down or publicly mischaracterized the civilian deaths in ways that a military investigation found deeply troubling. The documents show that Huck ignored early reports that women and children were killed in the attack, and later told investigators that he was unaware of regulations that required his staff to investigate further.

The documents, including a report by Army Maj. Gen. Eldon A. Bargewell, copies of e-mail messages among Marine officers in Haditha and sworn statements from several ranking officers, focus only on how the Marines' chain of command handled the killings and have not been made public. Portions of the report and commanders' reactions to the killings were reported by The Washington Post in January and April. The documents were provided to The New York Times by people familiar with the investigation only on the condition that they not be identified.

Stone, 34, of Dunkirk, Md., is accused of failing to investigate reports of the civilian deaths. In an interview that repeated similar frustrations voiced by lawyers for other accused officers, Stone said he did not investigate the killings because his superiors told him not to.

"The regimental judge advocate informed me that we don't do investigations for 'troops in contact' situations," Stone said, referring to the regiment's lawyer, Maj. Carroll Connelly. "Troops in contact" is military language for combat against enemy fighters. "That's my understanding of what higher wanted," Stone said, referring to his superior officers, "and that's why there was no investigation."

Connelly, who was not charged with any crime, has been granted immunity to testify at the coming hearings, said Stone's civilian lawyer, Charles W. Gittins.

After weighing evidence and arguments from prosecutors and defense lawyers, an investigating officer presiding over the hearing will determine whether there is sufficient evidence to recommend a general court-martial. The other three officers facing dereliction charges are Capt. Lucas M. McConnell, the company commander; 1st Lt. Andrew A. Grayson, a Marine intelligence officer; and Lt. Col. Jeffrey R. Chessani, the battalion commander.

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