CAMP PENDLETON -- A Marine general testified yesterday that he probably would have ordered an investigation into the killing of 24 civilians in Haditha, Iraq, but for a misleading report filed by the commander there.
Maj. Gen. Richard Huck's testimony is central to the prosecution's case that Marine Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani, 43, is guilty of dereliction of duty in connection with the killings.
On Nov. 19, 2005, Marines under Chessani's command shot five young men outside their car in Haditha and then killed 19 members of three families in or near their homes. The incident occurred in the early morning near the market area of the town in the Euphrates River valley, which had been an insurgent hotbed.
The five men who were shot to death "were essentially executed," said Lt. Col. Paul Atterbury, a prosecutor. No weapons were found inside or near the car.
Eight Iraqis were killed in the first home, six in the second and four in the third. Another civilian was killed just outside one of the homes. Marines assaulted the homes with fragmentation grenades and then entered with blasts from M-16s. Evidence suggested that the Marines fired hundreds of rounds.
Chessani's report, filed that night, indicated that the civilians were killed by a roadside bomb and a firefight that followed between Marines and insurgents barricaded in the homes.
Evidence in Chessani's Article 32 preliminary hearing at Camp Pendleton showed that no weapons or insurgent shell casings were found in the homes and that the homes were more than 100 yards from where a bomb had killed a Marine and wounded two.
Defense attorneys say Chessani let his superior officers know that there had been civilian casualties, including women and children.
Prosecutors respond that the report was misleading in suggesting that the Marines were responding to gunfire and that some of the casualties had been caused by the roadside bomb.
The report indicated that Chessani had examined the scene of the killings, prosecutors said. According to testimony, Chessani did not go to the scene.
Chessani's report broke the "trust tactics" that Marine officers rely upon to get reliable information from the battlefield, Huck testified. Based on Chessani's report, the general said, he had decided that no investigation of the incident was needed.
"There is a high level of confidence when a formal report comes through and says the battalion commander is on the scene," he said.
At the time of the killings, Huck commanded the 2nd Marine Division and Chessani commanded the 3rd Battalion, 1st Regiment.
Tony Perry writes for the Los Angeles Times.