President Bush said Wednesday he was troubled by allegations that U.S. Marines had killed unarmed Iraqi civilians and that, “if in fact laws were broken, there will be punishment.”
It was Bush’s first public comment on allegations that Marines killed about two dozen unarmed Iraqi men, women and children in the western city of Haditha last November.
Responding to a reporter’s question, Bush said he had discussed Haditha with Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “He’s a proud Marine. And nobody is more concerned about these allegations than the Marine Corps. The Marine Corps is full of honorable people who understand the rules of war.”
“If in fact these allegations are true,” Bush said, “the Marine Corps will work hard to make sure that that culture — that proud culture — will be reinforced. And that those who violated the law, if they did, will be punished.”
“I am troubled by the initial news stories,” Bush said. “I’m mindful that there’s a thorough investigation going on. If in fact, laws were broken, there will be punishment.”
Military investigators have evidence that points toward unprovoked murders by Marines, a senior defense official said last week.
If confirmed as unjustified killings, the episode could be the most serious case of criminal misconduct by U.S. troops during three years of combat in Iraq. Until now the most infamous occurrence was the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse involving Army soldiers, which came to light in April 2004 and which Bush said he considered to be the worst U.S. mistake of the entire war.
Once the military investigation is completed, perhaps in June, it will be up to a senior Marine commander in Iraq to decide whether to press charges of murder or other violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
White House press secretary Tony Snow said Wednesday there is no firm date for release of the investigative report. But he said he suspects it will come out in “a matter of weeks, not a matter of months,” and include photographic evidence.
Other killings alleged
Meanwhile, U.S. forces denied Wednesday a new accusation, from Iraqi officers, that American troops killed unarmed civilians in their home this month.
Iraqi army and police officers and several people who said they were witnesses and relatives of the dead said U.S. soldiers killed two women, aged 60 and 20, and a mentally handicapped man in their home on May 4 after insurgents fired on the troops.
Spokesmen for the 101st Airborne Division, which controls Samarra and Salahaddin province north of Baghdad, said soldiers from its 3rd Brigade Combat Team killed two unnamed men and a woman in a house who had “planned to attack the soldiers”.
There are frequent disputes over incidents between U.S. military and Iraqi officials in Salahaddin, where the Sunni Arab revolt against occupation and the Shi’ite-led government has been strong. U.S. officers have complained of “disinformation” from police as part of an insurgent campaign to discredit them.
Officer’s attorney weighs in
On Tuesday, the lawyer for Capt. James Kinder, one of the officers of the dozen enlisted Marines who are being investigated for the Haditha case, said that the inquiry is not targeting the officers themselves.
The investigations 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 Haditha, attorney Paul Hackett said.
Kimber, one of three battalion officers relieved of command last month, knew nothing of the deaths until after the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment returned from Iraq in March, Hackett said.
“My purpose is to separate his name from the alleged war crimes that took place,” Hackett told The Associated Press. “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 highest-ranking Marine targeted by the investigations is a staff sergeant who led the convoy, Hackett added.
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.
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.
Snow said Tuesday that Bush was briefed about the killings by National Security Adviser Steve Hadley early this year when Time magazine began asking questions about the incident.
Iraq prime minister critical
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 the Haditha incident.
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.
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.