General has doubts on Haditha officer’s efforts

Marines Haditha
Marine Lt. Col. Jeffrey R. Chessani is one of four officers charged for alleged failure to investigate and report the deaths of 24 Iraqi civilians.Lenny Ignelzi / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A Marine colonel whose men are suspected of killing 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha may not have done all he could to properly report and investigate the killings, a two-star general testified Friday.

"I think the question is did he report everything that he knew, and I have some questions about that," Maj. Gen. Richard A. Huck, the top general in charge of Marines in Iraq's Al Anbar province when the killings occurred, testified via video from the Pentagon.

Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani, 43, commander of the Marine battalion involved in the deaths, is charged with dereliction of duty for failing to investigate the killings and is the highest-ranking of seven Marines accused in the deadliest criminal case against U.S. troops in the Iraq war.

During a preliminary hearing to decide whether Chessani should be court-martialed, investigating officer Col. Christopher Conlin asked Huck whether, in hindsight, he thought Chessani acted appropriately.

Brian Rooney, Chessani's attorney, said his client was not guilty and immediately reported to his boss, Col. Stephen Davis, the commanding officer for the 2nd Marine Regiment, the facts as he understood them about who had died.

Conlin and prosecutors asked Huck about a Haditha town council meeting Chessani attended eight days after the killings. At that session, prosecutor Lt. Col. Paul Atterbury said local residents gave Chessani written allegations that women and children were targeted inside their homes and that a group of men were "essentially executed" as they stood beside a car with their hands in the air.

Huck said that he should have been made aware of the document but was not, and that he learned that the town council meeting had occurred only when he testified at a hearing last month for another officer charged in the case.

Rooney has previously said Chessani didn't consider the allegation credible, since the Iraqis may have had ties to the insurgency.

The civilians were killed Nov. 19, 2005, after a roadside bomb killed a lance corporal driving a Humvee. In the aftermath, Marines went house to house looking for insurgents.

The Marines have said they believed they were taking fire from the houses. They used fragmentation grenades and machine guns to clear the homes, but instead of hitting insurgents, they killed civilians.

Chessani and three other officers are accused of failing to investigate the killings, while three enlisted Marines are charged with murder.

Huck testified that he told top generals about the killings, including Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., but that "there was no direction" to do an investigation.

Also Wednesday, Lt. Col. Christopher Starling, who was a regimental operations officer at the time of the killings, testified that civilian deaths needed to be reported up the chain of command.

"If there was no sign of the enemy and we killed civilians, that's something that needs to be reported up," Starling, who is deployed at sea, testified via telephone. "Part of our job is protecting the civilian populace. If it's unwarranted, that's something you'd want to look into."

Starling added that he saw no need to launch an investigation at the time because he did not think a war crime had taken place. Dozens of other Marines have testified along similar lines at this and earlier proceedings.