CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. — Pentagon investigations into the shooting deaths of Iraqi civilians are focused on about a dozen enlisted Marines and do not target their commanding officers, the lawyer for one of the officers said Tuesday.
The investigations of up to two dozen killings and whether Marines covered them up are focused on the troops who were in a four-vehicle convoy hit by a roadside bomb last Nov. 19 in the western Iraqi city of Haditha, attorney Paul Hackett said.
Meanwhile, Iraq’s prime minister said on Tuesday his patience was wearing thin with excuses from U.S. troops that they kill civilians by “mistake” and said he would launch an investigation into the Haditha killings.
“There is a limit to the acceptable excuses. Yes, a mistake may happen, but there is an acceptable limit to mistakes,” Nuri al-Maliki told Reuters when asked about a U.S. investigation into the deaths of 24 Iraqi men, women and children in the western town last November.
The highest-ranking Marine targeted by the investigations is a staff sergeant who led the convoy, said Hackett, a Marine reservist and Iraqi war veteran who last year narrowly lost a special election for a U.S. House seat in Ohio.
The troops are from Kilo Company, part of Camp Pendleton’s 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment. Hackett represents Capt. James Kimber, one of three battalion officers relieved of command last month.
Officer maintains innocence
“My purpose is to separate his name from the alleged war crimes that took place,” Hackett told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “He’s not under investigation for anything related to what has played out in the press.”
Kimber, who was nominated for a Bronze Star for valor in Haditha, was relieved of command because his subordinates used profanity, removed sunglasses and criticized the performance of Iraqi security services during an interview with Britain’s Sky News TV, according to Hackett.
The Pentagon has named two others who were relieved of command: Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani, the battalion’s commander, and Capt. Lucas McConnell, who commanded Kilo Company. Hackett does not represent either man but said neither was present for the shootings and he believes neither man is a target of the investigations.
McConnell refused to speak with an AP reporter who visited his home near Camp Pendleton on Monday night.
Details of Haditha incident
The details of what happened in Haditha are still murky. What is known is that a bomb rocked a military convoy and left one Marine dead. Marines then shot and killed unarmed civilians in a taxi at the scene and went into two homes and shot other people, according to Rep. John Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat and decorated war veteran who has been briefed by military officials.
The Marine Corps had initially attributed 15 civilian deaths to the car bombing and a firefight with insurgents, eight of whom the Marines reported had been killed.
White House press secretary Tony Snow said Tuesday that President Bush was briefed about the killings by National Security Adviser Steve Hadley early this year when Time magazine began asking questions about the incident.
“The president also is allowing the chain of command do what it’s supposed to do over at Department of Defense, which is to complete an investigation,” he said.
In his first statement on the case, al-Maliki on Tuesday expressed remorse over the deaths.
“We emphasize that our forces, that multinational forces will respect human rights, the rights of the Iraqi citizen,” al-Maliki said through an interpreter in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp. “It is not justifiable that a family is killed because someone is fighting terrorists.”
In separate interviews with The Associated Press on Monday, the parents of two of the Marines who were members of a unit sent into Haditha to help remove the bodies said their children have been traumatized by the experience.
Lance Cpl. Andrew Wright, 20, and Lance Cpl. Roel Ryan Briones, 21, were ordered to photograph the scene with personal cameras they happened to be carrying the day of the attack, the families said. Briones’ mother, Susie, said her son told her that he saw the bodies of 23 dead Iraqis that day.
“It was horrific. It was a terrible scene,” Susie Briones said in a tearful interview at her home in California’s San Joaquin Valley.
Navy investigators confiscated Briones’ camera, his mother said. Wright’s parents, Patty and Frederick Wright of Novato, declined to comment on what might have happened to the photos their son took but said he turned over all of his information to the Navy.
“He is the Forrest Gump of the military,” Frederick Wright said. “He ended up in the spotlight through no fault of his own.”
Ryan Briones told the Los Angeles Times that Navy investigators had interrogated him twice in Iraq and that they wanted to know whether bodies had been tampered with. He turned over his digital camera but did not know what happened to it after that.
'Traumatic' for the soldiers
Susie Briones said the military had done little to help her son, who goes by his middle name, deal with his post-traumatic stress disorder.
“It was very traumatic for all of the soldiers involved with this thing,” said Susie Briones, 40, an academic adviser at a community college.
Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Monday on CBS’s “The Early Show” that “it would be premature for me to judge” the situation.
But he added that it is critically important to make the point that if certain service members are responsible for an atrocity, they “have not performed their duty the way that 99.9 percent of their fellow Marines have.”
Asked how such a thing could have happened, Pace replied, “Fortunately, it does not happen very frequently, so there’s no way to say historically why something like this might have happened. We’ll find out.”
A bloody scene
Briones’ best friend, Lance Cpl. Miguel “T.J.” Terrazas, had been killed the day of the attack by the roadside bomb, his mother said. Briones was still grieving when he was sent in to clean up the bodies of the Iraqi civilians.
“He had to carry that little girl’s body,” she said, “and her head was blown off and her brain splattered on his boots.”
The Wrights declined to say whether their son witnessed the killings or what he thought of the allegations against other members of his unit.
He was under so much pressure because of the investigation that he had consulted with an attorney, they said. He has also experienced psychological trauma.
Wright and Briones are both recipients of the Purple Heart, given to soldiers wounded in battle.
Wright was injured during an assault on Fallujah in January 2005. He voluntarily rejoined his unit at Camp Pendleton the next month.
Briones was on his second tour of duty in Iraq. He received a Purple Heart during his first tour.
Reuters contributed to this report.