Marine who dismissed charges in Iraqi civilian deaths to lead Centcom

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Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis

By Nancy A. Youssef | McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon Thursday nominated Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis to head up the U.S. Central Command, the final personnel change in a shake-up brought about by the dismissal of former Afghanistan commander Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates nominated Mattis to replace Gen. David Petraeus as the head the command responsible for the Middle East and parts of Southeast Asia.

Last month, President Barack Obama named Petraeus as the Afghanistan commander after relieving McChrystal of command over derogatory remarks he and his staff made about top civilian leaders that appeared in a Rolling Stone magazine article.

Mattis, currently the head of U.S. Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, Va., is a counterinsurgency expert who led the U.S. assault on the Iraqi city of Fallujah in 2004.

A popular general among Marines, Mattis is well known for blunt and sometimes inappropriate comments, making his nomination surprising to some given the reason for McChrystal’s firing.

In 2005, Mattis told a crowd in San Diego that “Actually, it’s a lot of fun to fight,” he said. “You know, it’s a hell of a hoot. . . . It’s fun to shoot some people. I’ll be right up front with you. I like brawling.”

The audience laughed, but the Pentagon didn’t. His superiors reprimanded him.

On Thursday, Gates said he was unconcerned about comments made five years ago and that Mattis has matured as a commander.

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“I have every confidence that Gen. Mattis will respond to questions and speak publicly about the matters for which he is responsible in an entirely appropriate way,” Gates said.

Mattis may also come under scrutiny during his Senate confirmation for the way he handled charges against eight Marines for the November 2005 killing of 24 Iraqi civilians in the Iraqi city of Haditha, especially since one of the key strategies of current U.S. policy in Afghanistan is to reduce civilian casualties.

The Marines at Haditha killed the Iraqis in their homes, including women and children, in what survivors described as an indiscriminate shooting spree after a fellow Marine was killed by a roadside bomb. A military investigation found that none of the dead were insurgents or had threatened the troops.

As head of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Pendleton, Calif., however, Mattis dismissed many of the charges. One Marine, Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, is still to be tried, with that proceeding set to begin Sept. 13.

In writing his reasons for dropping unpremeditated murder charges against one of the Marines, Lance Cpl. Justin I. Sharratt, Mattis said that brutality, including the death of innocents, is a part of war.

“The experience of combat is difficult to understand intellectually and very difficult to appreciate emotionally.” Mattis wrote. “With the dismissal of these charges LCpl Sharratt may fairly conclude that he did his best to live up to the standards, followed by U.S. fighting men throughout our many wars, in the face of life or death decisions made in a matter of seconds in combat. And as he has always remained cloaked in the presumption of innocence, with this dismissal of charges, he remains in the eyes of the law — and in my eyes — innocent.”

Until the announcement, Mattis had been expected to retire after he was passed over for Marine Corps Commander for Gen. James Amos. However, the McChrystal shake-up opened up the post for Mattis.

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