Charges Over Haditha Killings “Significant”


The media exposure of the Haditha killings resulted in charges against Marines
by David Alexander

WASHINGTON– The decision to charge four U.S. Marine officers accused of failing to properly investigate the killing of 24 Iraqi civilians was a rare step and might never have occurred had the media not brought the incident to light, experts said on Friday.

The Marine Corps on Thursday charged four Marines with unpremeditated murder in the killing of the two dozen men, women and children on November 19, 2005, in Haditha, Iraq.

The slayings occurred in the hours after a roadside bomb killed a Marine in a convoy of Humvees. Members of his unit killed Iraqis as they stopped a car and went through houses in a nearby neighbourhood. Defence lawyers have said the men were involved in a firefight but prosecutors dispute that.

Four officers — a lieutenant colonel, two captains and a lieutenant — also were charged, accused of dereliction of duty and other counts for their role in the aftermath. An investigation concluded that reporting on the killings up the chain of command was inaccurate and untimely…


“In my opinion the Marine Corps is demonstrating a serious concern that officers that are in command of combat troops closely supervise those troops, and when incidents of a suspicious or unusual nature arise, that they had best look into those,” said Gary Solis, who teaches the law of war at Georgetown University.

“It is rare for officers to be charged. And that four would be charged when in the prior history of the war only 10 have been charged, I think that Marine Corps concern is demonstrated,” he said.

“It’s unusual to go up the food chain in the military for indirect liability,” added Matthew Freedus, an expert in military law at the law firm Feldesman Tucker Leifer Fidell.

Colin Kahl, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota, said the Haditha incident highlighted a weakness in the U.S. military’s efforts to enforce policies and rules of war that protect civilians in war zones.

“One of the places where the U.S. military has been justly criticised in the past is whether it has aggressively enough investigated incidents,” he said.

“The U.S. military does a very good job at the front end of operations, that is training, rules of engagement, targeting procedures,” Kahl said. “In those types of things it goes to great lengths to avoid civilian deaths.”


Its weakness lies in discovering and investigating misdeeds by U.S. forces, he said. In fact the Haditha killings came to light after they were reported by Time magazine, and only then did military officials begin pressing for details.

“The law of war does not automatically pick up all wrongdoing,” said Solis. “It has to be discovered, it has to be pursued.”

Analysts said the military justice system was generally good at following cases after they came to public notice.

“I think what we find … is that once these incidents are brought to light, whether by rights groups or the media, that the U.S. military has done a fairly good job of investigating them at that point,” Kahl said. “The open question is whether the U.S. military is capable of doing things without somebody else bringing them to light.”

Solis said the military’s handling of similar criminal cases was a mixed bag. He pointed to the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War, where the response was weak until events became publicly known, then stronger during the prosecution and weaker again when only one person was convicted.

“It’s like most criminality. It depends on detection, aggressive prosecution,” he said. “Some criminality … is not well prosecuted, and neither is the law of war because of the very nature of the offences.”


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