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Six officers and a senior enlisted Marine have given sworn statements that there was nothing they saw or heard about a firefight in Iraq in 2005 that would make them think any Marine purposely killed Iraqi civilians, according to a law firm investigating the case.
Officials with the Thomas More Law Center of Ann Arbor, Mich., say they are representing Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani, who along with other Marines was accused after Time magazine “misreported” circumstances about the battle in the war on terror that pitted U.S. Marines against Iraqi and foreign terrorists on Nov. 19, 2005.
Chessani is accused of failure to investigate and brief higher command about the situation. The sworn testimony was taken for use at a proposed May Article 32 hearing for Chessani, because the witnesses likely will be out of the country an unavailable then.
“The more evidence that is brought to light from key witnesses the better,” said Brian Rooney, a former Marine officer who served seven months in Iraq, and is one of two Thomas More Law Center attorneys on the case. The other is Robert Muise, who served in the first Persian Gulf War.
“There is so much misreporting and outright propaganda from the enemy presented as fact by news organizations like Time magazine that we have started in on the process of debunking false reports through the truth with these depositions,” Rooney said.
The attack happened in Haditha, Al Anbar, Iraq, which had been known as “an insurgent citadel.” It became headline material in the United States when a Marine convoy was ambushed by a road-side bomb and small arms fire from nearby houses.
The bomb killed one Marine in a Humvee and injured two more, and the resulting house-to-house battle between the outnumbered 4-man Marine “fire team” and the insurgents resulted in 24 Iraqi deaths, including 15 civilians.
One key witness was the intelligence officer for 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines while the unit was in Iraq, Rooney said. During his closed testimony, he provided classified evidence of the enemy situation and tactics, including the common procedure of using civilians as cover for their attacks.
“The intelligence officer is a crucial witness in this case,” said Muise. “During his testimony, he effectively described the enemy situation prior to, during, and after the Nov. 19 terrorist attack, providing the necessary context for the decisions that were made as a result.”
“His testimony shows the complexity of the attack this day, the callousness of the terrorists toward the local civilians, whom they use to their advantage, and the error of viewing this incident in a vacuum,” he said.
Another witness – who is the current intelligence officer for the battalion, said since the incident got so much negative attention, terrorist propaganda alleging war violations against Americans have “ballooned” in Iraq.
“The government’s politicized quest to find wrongdoing in this case will ultimately harm the war effort, and it has already resulted in an incredible expenditure of time, money, and scarce resources, which could be better used fighting the terrorists,” said Richard Thompson, president of the Thomas More Law Center.
Yet another officer who witnessed the scene of the attack shortly after the gunshots ended and helped remove the civilian bodies from homes occupied by insurgents said there was no evidence of “executions” as alleged.
“This officer’s testimony is significant. He was on the scene shortly after the attack. He saw the location of the bodies. He personally observed the damage caused by the attack. And yet, he saw nothing that caused him to suspect any wrongdoing on the part of the Marines. Moreover, this officer was given immunity by the government, so the only way he can get in trouble is if he testifies untruthfully,” said Lt. Col. Jon Shelburne, a military member of the defense team.
“Our job is to allow the facts of Nov. 19, 2005, and beyond to be presented to the investigating officer rather than the scurrilous and unfounded accusations from anti-war politicans and media who rely on insurgent sources for their stories about our decent and hard fighting men in uniform,” said Thompson.
The Thomas More Law Center, which is defending Chessani, a Colorado Marine, at no cost, said his maximum punishment could be dismissal, loss of retirement and three years in prison. He successfully directed his soldiers through the Haditha ambush, but then got caught in U.S. Rep. John Murtha’s firefight of words as the anti-war congressman tried to capitalize on the situation.
Murtha, chairman of the House military appropriations subcommittee, has publicly accused Marines of being “cold-blooded murderers” and officers of covering it up.
Thompson said that taint is what the lawyers now are trying to remove from the case.
The Thomas More Law Center said Chessani is described by fellow officers as a focused, hands-on commander who followed the Law of War and was sympathetic to the plight of innocent Iraqis. He is a committed Christian with a wife and five children, and has served his nation honorably for more than 19 years with tours of duty in Panama, the first Persian Gulf War and three tours in Iraq.
Chessani, who grew up in Rangely, Colo., and graduated from the University of Northern Colorado, was among eight Marines charged in December with counts stemming from the Haditha ambush.
Also charged were Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich; Sgt. Sanick P Dela Cruz; Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt, 22; Lance Cpl. Stephen Tatum; 1st Lt. Andrew Grayson; Capt. Lucas McConnell and Capt. Randy Stone.
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