Investigation into Marine Corps' involvement in civilian deaths must be thorough to avoid harm to war effort in Iraq, military historian says

Thursday, June 1, 2006

The White House is promising to release details on a military investigation into the killings of Iraqi citizens in November 2005 in the western city of Haditha once the investigation is completed. Initial reports claim 24 people died from a roadside bomb, but evidence now casts doubt on that story, and claims a cover-up by members of the Marine Corps.

The chairman of the University of North Texas Department of History says the investigation will need to be thorough and deliberate.

Dr. Adrian Lewis, a former infantry officer and former instructor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, says the Marines should, and probably already have, appointed a senior officer to thoroughly investigate the case.

"That officer will then be provided with all the legal and other assistance he needs to conduct a thorough investigation. Based on the finding of the investigating officer, a court martial board will be appointed," Lewis says.

The board will read the findings of the investigating officer, and then conduct its own investigation to confirm those finding, he says. The individuals suspected of wrongdoing will then be charged with crimes, or articles, under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and will be appointed with defense attorneys - uniformed officers - and may also acquire civilian attorneys to advise them, Lewis says.

After the date the court martial is set, all parties will have access to all the information available and time to prepare their arguments, as in civilian court, he says.

"Once the Court Martial process is completed, the senior officer will issue a verdict. If the service members are found guilty, he will also issue sentences," Lewis says. "The entire case will then be reviewed by senior military leaders, and in this case, the Secretary of Defense."

He adds published reports indicate those responsible could face murder and dereliction of duty charges.

Originally, the Marines reported the civilians died in a roadside bombing that also killed one Marine. Later reports suggested the civilian victims might have been caught in a firefight.

But last week, Pentagon officials said the investigation tends to back allegations that the Americans carried out an unprovoked massacre. Rep. John Murtha, D-Penn., a decorated war veteran who has been briefed by military officials, has said Marines shot and killed unarmed civilians in a taxi at the scene and went into two homes and shot others.

Lewis says the more publicity this case receives, the more harm it does to the U.S. stature in the region and to the war effort in Iraq.

"Arab news networks have already picked up the story," he says. "Currently, in Iraq, we are losing the battle for the hearts and minds of the people. Iraq and its surrounding Arab states are growing insurgency forces faster than we can kill them. If this trend continues, we will lose. It is hard to be optimistic about our chances for success in Iraq."

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