A report on the killing of 24 Iraqi civilians by U.S. Marines has found that senior military personnel in Iraq failed to follow up on “red flags” that should have indicated problems with and potential inaccuracies in initial accounts of the incident, according to a portion of the report’s summary.
The report questions why senior military officers in western Iraq failed to investigate further what happened in the town of Haditha when they learned that civilians there had been killed in the November incident. A portion of the executive summary of the report, by Army Maj. Gen. Eldon Bargewell, was read to The Times by a Defense Department official who requested anonymity because the report had not been released publicly.
“Virtually no inquiry at any level of command was conducted into the circumstances surrounding the deaths,” Bargewell wrote, according to the excerpt provided to The Times. “There were, however, a number of red flags and opportunities to do so.”
Military officials have said a squad of Marines killed the 24 civilians in Haditha after a roadside bomb killed a member of Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division based at Camp Pendleton.
After the incident, the Marines involved reported that the civilians were killed by a roadside bomb or in the crossfire of a battle between the Americans and insurgents. In a public report, the Marine Corps attributed the deaths to a roadside bomb.
Bargewell was assigned to investigate the actions, or failure to act, of the Marines’ leadership, in part to determine whether officers sought to cover up the incident. A separate inquiry by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service is expected to determine whether criminal wrongdoing occurred. Commanders at Camp Pendleton, where seven Marines and a Navy corpsman allegedly involved in the Haditha incident are being held in the brig, will decide whether charges should be filed against the men.
The Bargewell report has not been released and is still being reviewed by Army Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, a top U.S. commander in Iraq. But military officials have said that though it suggests there was no deliberate cover-up by senior Marine officers, there were many failures in the follow-up.
For instance, the executive summary of Bargewell’s inquiry argues that problems with the reports submitted by the Marines of Kilo Company should have been apparent to leaders of the Marine command in the area, called Multinational Force-West, or MNF-West.
“No follow-up actions regarding the civilian casualties were deemed necessary by the senior leadership of MNF-West,” the report reads. “Initial reports of K Company and its subordinate units were untimely, inaccurate and incomplete. They were conflicted, poorly vetted and forgotten once transmitted.”
The summary suggested that Marine officers missed several opportunities to probe more deeply into the incident. One of those involved the 2nd Marine Division comptroller, who would have been responsible for making compensatory payments to the families of the civilians who were killed. The comptroller told the staff judge advocate’s office -- which functions as the division’s legal counsel -- that he believed the incident “might require further reporting.”
But the advocate’s office didn’t act on the comptroller’s request.
“The 2nd Marine Division SJA did not forward any reports of the incidents to the higher headquarters,” the report said.
Top Marine Corps officials have also concluded that the $38,500 in compensatory payments made to the relatives of those killed in Haditha should have caused the 2nd Marine Division to examine the incident more closely. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Michael Hagee went to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina this month to emphasize his disappointment with the top level of the 2nd Marine Division, headquartered there, for not examining the “after-action” reports more thoroughly.
While deployed to Iraq, the battalion involved in the Haditha incident reported to 2nd Marine Division headquarters.
Senior Marine Corps officials have concluded that there was a “failure of leadership” in the division, whose officers, it was determined, should have launched an inquiry long before they did. A formal inquiry was not begun until Time magazine began looking into the incident for an article it published in March.
The Corps has not waited for Bargewell’s findings. His report is likely to make recommendations about how the military in Iraq can improve its investigations of incidents in which civilians are killed.
In advance of that advice being made public, the Marines have moved to overhaul their procedures. They have also begun to discipline the officers who supervised the squad involved in the Haditha incident.
In April, when the 3rd Battalion returned to Camp Pendleton, Maj. Gen. Richard Natonski, commanding general of the 1st Marine Division, relieved the battalion commander and company commander whose troops were involved in the incident because of a “lack of confidence in their leadership.”
Barnes reported from Washington and Perry from San Diego.