Officer in Iraq Says He Didn't Suspect Wrongdoing in Haditha Murder Case

The Marine officer in charge of troops suspected of killing 24 Iraqi men, women and children told investigators he did not initiate an inquiry into the carnage because he did not consider the deaths unusual, The Washington Post reported Saturday.

In a sworn statement given to military investigators in March, Lt. Col. Jeffrey R. Chessani said: "I thought it was very sad, very unfortunate, but at the time, I did not suspect any wrongdoing from my Marines." Chessani was commander of the 3rd Battalion of the 1st Marines.

"I did not have any reason to believe that this was anything other than combat action," he added.

The Post said it obtained a copy of Chessani's statement.

Reached by telephone late Friday, Marine Lt. Col. Sean Gibson, a spokesman on the Haditha case, said he had not seen the report and could not comment.

The Marine Corps has been investigating whether its troops deliberately killed the Iraqis in Haditha. The Marines also are looking into whether efforts were made to cover up the incident. Initially, the Marine Corps reported that 15 Iraqis had died in a roadside bombing or were caught in crossfire between Marines and insurgents. Survivors of the encounter and human rights groups, however, claimed that 24 Iraqi civilians had been deliberately shot to death by Marines.

The New York Times reported Thursday that military investigators have concluded that the Marines destroyed or withheld evidence.

No charges have been brought in the Haditha killings, and the official results of the Marine investigation have not been released. Chessani, who has been relieved of his duties, has not spoken publicly about the incident.

According to the Post, Chessani's statement was provided by a source "sympathetic" to the Marines involved in the case. The incident occurred in a dangerous area where insurgent attacks were common.

Because attacks were so common, Chessani told investigators he saw the incident as part of a "complex attack" staged by the enemy, according to the newspaper. "I did not see any cause for alarm," he said.

The Haditha case is among recent cases of alleged atrocities against Iraqi civilians. Five soldiers and a former solider have been charged with raping and killing a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and killing her relatives in Mahmoudiya. Seven Marines and one Navy corpsman have been charged with premeditated murder in connection with the killing of an Iraqi man in Hamdania on April 26.