Military Probe Accuses Marines of Killing Civilians

A military probe has concluded that U.S. Marines in Iraq killed unarmed Iraqi civilians without provocation. The inquiry alleges that a group of Marines fired on men, women and children while looking for insurgents after an explosion of a roadside bomb killed one of their comrades. Madeleine Brand speaks with Los Angeles Times reporter Tony Perry about the investigation.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And I'm Alex Chadwick. Coming up, confusion about reports of gunfire at the U.S. Capitol. We'll have more later in the program.

BRAND: But first, unarmed civilians, including women and children, were deliberately killed by Marines in Hadifa, Iraq. That's the conclusion of official military investigations according to sources quoted in today's Los Angeles Times. Investigators also found that other Marines tried to cover up the killings. Times' reporter Tony Perry joins us now from San Diego. He was at the Camp Pendleton Marine Base where the alleged perpetrators are now. And Tony, what is the mood like on the base now? This is serious. These are not accidental killings.

Mr. TONY PERRY (Reporter, Los Angeles Times): No, it's a very serious thing. It's exactly what the Marines have always worried about since they crossed into Iraq in March of '03. Each Marine received a written statement from the commanding general as we went into Iraq that night, saying keep your hands off unarmed civilians. Show them compassion. Fight only with combatants. Think before you shoot. This has always been a concern for the Marines.

BRAND: Tell us what's in the report, according to the people you spoke with.

Mr. PERRY: Well, it says that Hadifa, which is basically a lawless insurgent stronghold northwest of Baghdad, the Marines were on a patrol. An explosive device exploded underneath one of their vehicles, killing a young Marine. And then the other Marines fanned out and did a sweep, a very common military procedure, which they swept through the city looking for the perpetrators. And in that process, it is alleged, some of the Marines shot without provocation and violated the rules of law and the Geneva Convention. The other Marines either should have stopped them or, knowing it happened, should have made sure upper officers knew about it and apparently, allegedly, did not.

BRAND: And tell us more about that incident. Apparently there were some men at a taxi cab stand. And then there were other civilians in houses.

Mr. PERRY: Yeah, a number of the dead - we're talking 24 dead, including women and children - were in houses that the Marines were killing. The Marines have gone back, and the Army investigators and the Navy investigators have gone back. They've done autopsies on some of the victims. They've paid money to the families of some of the victims. They've gotten film that some of the victims' families shot of the dead bodies. It's a mess. And they've compiled a report that is called voluminous, hundreds if not thousands of pages with every conceivable angle covered. The commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Michael Hagey, left Washington yesterday to go to Iraq to meet with the Army officials who were doing the investigation but also to talk to his own troops. As he said in his statement, we protect non-combatants. We only destroy those things that are part of war, not unarmed civilians.

So he is out there reaffirming rules that all of the Marines have been taught, but allegedly some of them apparently forgot.

BRAND: Well, what could the fallout be once these reports are made public? I imagine this could be far worse than the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.

Mr. PERRY: We could be talking courtmartials, probably. And of course the political fallout will, doubtless, be enormous. This incident has already been big news in the Arab world from the day it happened, November 19th. So I think the political fallout in the Arab world and everywhere where the issue of American involvement in Iraq is debated is going to be enormous.

BRAND: And Tony, you've been there at the base talking to people, talking to Marines at Camp Pendleton there in San Diego. I'm wondering if this is also having an effect on the morale there.

Mr. PERRY: No, I don't think so. These are professionals. And don't forget, this is a base that has had more personnel killed and wounded in Iraq than any other U.S. military base, almost 300 dead from this base. So they, they're steeled to war. And while this incident's very serious, it isn't enough to shake anybody's morale.

BRAND: Thank you. Tony Perry is a reporter with the Los Angeles Times reporting from San Diego.

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