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Military Inquiry Is Said to Oppose Account of Raid

Story Courtesy of The New York Times
By Eric Schmitt and David S. Cloud

WASHINGTON, May 30 — A military investigator uncovered evidence in February and March that contradicted repeated claims by marines that Iraqi civilians killed in Haditha last November were victims of a roadside bomb, according to a senior military official in Iraq.

Among the pieces of evidence that conflicted with the marines' story were death certificates that showed all the Iraqi victims had gunshot wounds, mostly to the head and chest, the official said.

The investigation, which was led by Col. Gregory Watt, an Army officer in Baghdad, also raised questions about whether the marines followed established rules for identifying hostile threats when they assaulted houses near the site of a bomb attack, which killed a fellow marine.

The three-week inquiry was the first official investigation into an episode that was first uncovered by Time magazine in January and that American military officials now say appears to have been an unprovoked attack by the marines that killed 24 Iraqi civilians. The results of Colonel Watt's investigation, which began on Feb. 14, have not previously been disclosed.

"There were enough inconsistencies that things didn't add up," said the senior official, who was briefed on the conclusions of Colonel Watt's preliminary investigation.

The official agreed to discuss the findings only after being promised anonymity. The findings have not been made public, and the Pentagon and the Marines have refused to discuss the details of inquiries now underway, saying that to do so could compromise the investigation.

When Colonel Watt described the findings to Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the senior ground commander in Iraq, on March 9, they raised enough questions about the marines' veracity that General Chiarelli referred the matter to the senior Marine commander in Iraq, who ordered a criminal investigation that officials say could result in murder charges being brought against members of the unit.

Colonel Watt's findings also prompted General Chiarelli to order a parallel investigation into whether senior Marine officers and enlisted personnel had attempted to cover up what happened.

Colonel Watt's inquiry included interviews with marines believed to have been involved in the killings, as well as with senior officers in the unit, the Third Battalion of the First Marine Regiment.

Among them were Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, whom officials had said was one of the senior noncommissioned officers on the patrol, and Lt. Col. Jeffrey R. Chessani, the battalion commander, the senior official said. Colonel Chessani was relieved of his command in April, after the unit returned from Iraq.

In their accounts to Colonel Watt, the marines said they took gunfire from the first of five residences they entered near the bomb site, according to the senior military official.

The official said the marines had recalled hearing "a weapon being prepared to be used against them."

Colonel Watt also reviewed payments totaling $38,000 in cash made within weeks of the shootings to families of victims.

In an interview Tuesday, Maj. Dana Hyatt, the officer who made the payments, said he was told by superiors to compensate the relatives of 15 victims, but was told that rest of those killed had been deemed to have committed hostile acts, leaving their families ineligible for compensation.

After the initial payments were made, however, those families demanded similar payments, insisting their relatives had not attacked the marines, Major Hyatt said.

Major Hyatt said he was authorized by Colonel Chessani and more senior officers at the marines' regimental headquarters to make the payments to relatives of 15 victims.

Colonel Chessani "was part of the chain of command that gives the approval," Major Hyatt said.

"Even when he signs off on it," the major added, "it still has to go up to" the unit's regimental headquarters.

Colonel Chessani declined to comment on Tuesday when visited at his home at Camp Pendleton, Calif.

The list of 15 victims deemed to be noncombatants was put together by intelligence personnel attached to the battalion, Major Hyatt said. Those victims were related to a Haditha city council member, he said. The American military sometimes pays compensation to relatives of civilian victims.

The relatives of each victim were paid a total of $2,500, the maximum allowed under Marine rules, along with $250 payments for two children who were wounded. Major Hyatt said he also compensated the families for damage to two houses.

"I didn't say we had made a mistake," Major Hyatt said, describing what he had told the city council member who was representing the victims. "I said I'm being told I can make payments for these 15 because they were deemed not to be involved in combat."

The military began its examination of the killings only after Time magazine presented the full findings of its investigation to a military spokesman in Baghdad in early February.

General Chiarelli, an Army officer who took command of American ground forces in Iraq in January, learned soon after the spokesman was notified that the Marines had not investigated the incident, according to the senior military official.

On Tuesday, the White House spokesman, Tony Snow, said President Bush first became aware of the episode after the Time magazine inquiry, when he was briefed by Stephen Hadley, the national security adviser. "When this comes out, all the details will be made available to the public, so we'll have a picture of what happened," Mr. Snow said.

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