updated 11/16/2007 6:57:09 PM ET 2007-11-16T23:57:09

The highest-ranking U.S. serviceman to face a combat-related court-martial since the Vietnam War was arraigned Friday on charges of failing to investigate the killings of 24 Iraqis, including women and children.

Lt. Col. Jeffrey R. Chessani reserved the right to enter a plea at a later date, although his attorney said he planned to plead not guilty. He also deferred a decision on whether to have his court-martial heard by a jury of his peers or a military judge.

Chessani has been charged with dereliction of duty and violation of a lawful order on allegations that he mishandled the aftermath of the Nov. 19, 2005, shooting deaths in Haditha.

Earlier that day, the squad’s convoy was struck by a roadside bomb, killing one Marine and wounding another. In the aftermath, squad members killed 24 Iraqis, authorities have said.

The judge, Col. Steven A. Folsom, set an April 28 trial date.

Chessani was commander of the Camp Pendleton-based 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment that has been the focus of the largest prosecution of U.S. troops in the Iraq war.

The decision to send Chessani to trial came after a hearing officer blasted Chessani for failing to go to the scene of the killings immediately after they occurred.

“To not have made every attempt to be on scene as this action developed, or to not have at least reviewed this action in detail ... is in itself negligent,” Col. Christopher Conlin wrote.

Despite complaints, no initial formal probe
At Chessani’s preliminary hearing in June at Camp Pendleton, several witnesses testified that Iraqis had complained to Chessani in the days after the killings and that he promised to look into what had happened.

But Chessani, of Rangely, Colo., said he never ordered a formal investigation because he believed the deaths resulted from lawful combat.

If convicted on all counts, Chessani faces up to three years in prison.

Robert J. Muise, the Marine’s civilian attorney, said Chessani was ready to face the charges: “It’s been a long process and, obviously, it’s tiring and trying.”

Muise said they are contemplating whether to call at least two generals to testify.

Chessani is the most senior U.S. serviceman since the Vietnam War to face a court-martial for actions or decisions made in combat, said Gary Solis, a former Marine Corps prosecutor and judge who teaches law of war at Georgetown University Law Center.

He is the second colonel to be court-martialed over actions in Iraq. Army Lt. Col. Steven L. Jordan of Fredericksburg, Va., was court-martialed on charges of abusing detainees at Abu Ghraib prison. He was cleared of those charges but convicted on a lesser charge — disobeying a general’s order not to discuss the abuse investigation.

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