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."Reuse content