Sunday, December 24, 2006
Lawyers for eight Marines charged with involvement in the massacre
of Iraqi civilians in Haditha 13 months ago have warned that they
will point the finger much further up the chain of command if
it means preventing their clients from being scapegoated.
"We're going to drag every single, two-star and full-bird
colonel and general into this thing," said Kevin McDermott,
a California-based lawyer representing Captain Lucas McConnell,
the commander of Kilo Company, which carried out the Haditha killings.
The defence lawyers say their clients were following official
policy on the rules of engagement.
In all, 24 Iraqis, including six children, several women and
an old man in a wheelchair, were killed in Haditha as the Marines
responded to the death of a colleague in a roadside bombing in
November 2005. Only five of the dead Iraqis have been identified
as militants, while the rest appear to have been innocent civilians.
Four Marines were charged with unpremeditated murder last week,
and face life imprisonment if convicted. The man who led a series
of deadly house-to-house raids that day, Staff Sgt Frank Wuterich,
is personally accused of murdering 12 people. Four others, including
Capt McConnell, face an array of lesser charges, including failure
to report the incident properly, failure to conduct an appropriate
investigation and general dereliction of duty.
Many critics have argued that the Haditha incident might have
been written off as business as usual, were it not for graphic
Iraqi documentation of the massacre that made its way into Time
magazine last spring. The military initially claimed, erroneously,
that the roadside bomb killed 15 of the Iraqis, and nominated
Staff Sgt Wuterich for a medal for bravery.
Responding to the charges against his client, Mr McDermott said
the top brass was well aware of what had happened, but condemned
it only after it became glaringly public. "A lot of lieutenant
colonels and colonels and generals knew what happened that day,
and nobody said, 'let's do a thorough investigation of what happened',"
he said. "By the end of the day, [my client's] superiors
recognised the situation was so significant that they brought
in air support.
"There were Harriers dropping 500lb bombs on buildings.
If they're dropping 500lb bombs without knocking on the door first,
how can you argue the troops on the ground did anything wrong?"
The Haditha case could not come at a worse time for US morale,
as the White House pushes for a "surge" of extra troops
to secure Baghdad and Sunni-controlled Anbar province against
the better judgment of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and all but 12
per cent of the US public. President George Bush's administration
has even talked about expanding the overall size of the US military.
Haditha was front-page news across America on Friday, forcing
officials sharply on to the defensive. Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary
of State, said the cost in US lives and money in Iraq had been
"worth it". President Bush, she insisted, would never
ask for further sacrifices "if he didn't believe, and in
fact I believe as well, that we can in fact succeed".
The new Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, gave a similarly positive
- if unconvincing - assessment as he made his first trip to Iraq
in his new job. "I believe, based on what I have heard and
seen both from American commanders and the Iraqis, that things
are moving in a positive direction."