Camp Pendleton, Calif. -- A Marine lieutenant said in recorded testimony yesterday that he had never considered that Marines might have done anything wrong in killing 24 people in Haditha, Iraq, even when he found the bodies of two women and six children on a bed.
Lt. Max Frank, who had been ordered to take the bodies to the city morgue, said he assumed that the Marines had "cleared" three houses of suspected insurgents according to their standing orders, by throwing in fragmentation grenades and entering with blasts of M-16 fire.
The smoke would have kept the Marines from noticing that they were firing on women and children, Frank said.
"It was unfortunate, but I had no reason to believe anything they had done was on purpose," Frank said during a videotaped deposition.
He testified on the first day of an Article 32 hearing, akin to a preliminary hearing, for Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani. The Haditha killings are the largest atrocity allegation against U.S. troops in Iraq.
Chessani, 43, is charged with dereliction of duty and violating a lawful order for not ordering a complete investigation into the incident as a possible war crime.
Chessani, three other officers and four enlisted Marines have been charged in the incident.
The military ordered an investigation after Time magazine published an account contradicting the Marines' initial version of the events of Nov. 19, 2005, in which they said the deaths resulted from crossfire.
Sgt. Maj. Edward Sax, who was the battalion's senior enlisted man, testified yesterday that he assumed Chessani had investigated immediately after the incident. Later, he said, he asked Chessani whether "the Marines had done the right thing."
Chessani replied, "Everything was OK," Sax said.
Sax indicated that his confidence was shaken after he heard that the squad leader, Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, had told his Marines to "shoot first and ask questions later."
"That's a bad and damning comment to make for a Marine leader," Sax said.
Wuterich is charged with 12 counts of unpremeditated murder for using "deadly force without conducting positive identification" to determine that those in the house and in a car outside the house were insurgents.