WASHINGTON—The Marine Corps' top general left for Iraq on Thursday to remind Marines that it's important to maintain their core values of "honor, courage and commitment" even in the middle of a bitter counterinsurgency where the differences between right and wrong, friend and foe, are often blurred.
Marine Commandant Gen. Michael W. Hagee's departure came a day after Marines in Iraq announced a criminal investigation into allegations that Marines killed an Iraqi civilian near the town of Hamandiyah, west of Baghdad, on April 26. Investigators are also probing a Nov. 19 incident in which a group of Marines allegedly shot and killed 23 Iraqi civilians in the town of Haditha, according to survivors interviewed by Knight Ridder.
Sen. John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters on Thursday that in both cases "there are established facts that incidents of a very serious nature did take place." Hagee briefed Warner and the committee's ranking Democrat, Carl Levin of Michigan, about the investigations on Wednesday. The full committee was briefed on Thursday.
Warner said he would reserve judgment until he and other members of Congress "have a full set of facts." He disclosed that there were possibly photos taken of the scene where the killings occurred.
A person familiar with the investigation said the photos were taken after the incident and didn't show actual wrongdoing by troops.
But the person, who asked not be identified because the investigation was still ongoing, said that if the photos are tied to the killings, they "could be very damaging to the U.S. effort in Iraq."
Marine Corps officials said Hagee's trip had been scheduled months ago, but that he intended to use the trip to deliver prepared remarks at Marine bases in Iraq and on every Marine base in the United States reminding troops of their obligations under the rules of war.
"Many of our Marines have been involved in life or death combat or have witnessed the loss of their fellow Marines, and the effects of these events can be numbing," Hagee will say, according to a copy of the remarks. "There is the risk of becoming indifferent to the loss of a human life, as well as bringing dishonor upon ourselves."
Hagee said all Marines have been taught how to conduct themselves properly on the battlefield and have been trained to follow the Geneva Convention and other regulations while at war.
"We do not employ force just for the sake of employing force," the prepared text said. "We use lethal force only when justified, proportional, and most importantly lawful."
The remarks call such conduct "the American way of war."
"We must regulate force and violence," Hagee will say. "We only damage property that must be damaged, and we protect non-combatants we find on the battlefield."
Hagee also will urge Marines to have the "moral courage to do the `right thing' in the face of danger or pressure from other Marines."
On Wednesday, the Marine command in the Iraqi city of Fallujah said that "several" Marines from 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment had been returned to the United States until an investigation is completed into the April 26 killing of an Iraqi civilian near Hamandiyah. The Marines said local Iraqis brought the alleged killing to the attention of Marine commanders during a routine meeting on May 1.
Investigators reportedly are near completion of their probe into the Nov. 19 incident at Haditha. Military officials in Baghdad initially reported that 15 civilians on a bus were killed that day, along with one Marine in a nearby Humvee, when a roadside bomb exploded. They later said the civilians died in the crossfire between Marines and insurgents.
But Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., told a press conference last week that the Marines killed the civilians "in cold blood" after snapping because of the pressures of combat.
Murtha, the ranking Democrat on the Defense Appropriations subcommittee and an opponent of Bush administration policy in Iraq, said those findings would be included in a report due for delivery to top military brass in Baghdad this week.
Murtha, a retired Marine officer and Vietnam veteran, said he had not read the report, but had learned of its findings from military commanders and other sources.
A Marine lieutenant colonel and two company commanders from 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment were relieved after the Haditha killings and sent home. The commander of 1st Marine Division didn't tie the officers to the alleged massacre, but said they'd been relieved because of numerous incidents throughout their tour.
Haditha, a town in western Iraq about 140 miles northwest of Baghdad, has been a hotbed of the Iraqi insurgency in western Anbar province for more than two years. Fourteen Marines were killed near Haditha last August when a bomb blew up underneath their armored personnel carrier, in one of the worst single fatal attacks for U.S. troops so far in the war.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.