Friday, June 30, 2006

The Promotion After Haditha

As two investigations of the alleged massacre in Iraq drag on, questions are raised over the promotion of one officer who is a focus of the probe

Three officers have already been removed from their posts in the wake of the allegations that U.S. Marines killed 24 civilians in the Iraqi town of Haditha. But while top-level officials in the Marine Corps await the report from Army Maj. General Eldon Bargewell, who is investigating the actions of the Marines and the chain of command after the incident, the promotion of one of the Marines who is the focus of the criminal investigation is drawing new scrutiny.

Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich, the Marine who was the unit leader on the ground that day in Haditha, was put on the Marine Corps list for promotion from sergeant to staff sergeant in October 2005. Being put on the list, however, does not ensure promotion; the Marine's commander must okay it first, and the Marine Corps routinely holds up nominations or promotions if there is any reason to question the actions of a Marine. Even a charge of "driving while intoxicated," for example, can delay or derail a step up.

Still, Wuterich, who has over seven years in the Corps but was on his first combat duty in Haditha, was officially promoted to the higher rank on January 1, 2006, six weeks after the incident took place. That has led some Marine sources to suspect there was at least a failure to report relevant details up the chain of command. Others, including Wuterich's attorney, Neal Puckett, argue that Wuterich acted appropriately under the rules of engagement in Haiditha and that if his superior officers had suspected otherwise, Wuterich's promotion would have been stopped.

The Marine Corps has been more careful with regard to two other promotions since Wuterich's. The Corps has kept two senior officers — a major general and a colonel — who were in command at the time of the incident, from moving into new positions until the report from Army Major General is complete.

Meanwhile, despite reports that Bargewell's report would be delivered weeks ago, it appears that Lt. Gen. Peter Chairelli, the ground commander in Iraq, who ordered up the investigation, is still reviewing Bargewell's detailed report. "He is going over it with a fine tooth comb," says one defense official. "Given the interest in this case, everyone wants the first report to be comprehensive and answer all the possible questions."

The other inquiry into the alleged Haditha massacre, being conducted by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, is not likely to reach its final conclusions until later this summer. One problem slowing that probe is the refusal of Iraqi families to allow the bodies of the victims to be exhumed. In some previous cases where U.S. troops were under suspicion, Iraqi corpses have in fact been brought back to Dover Air Force Base for US forensic specialists to examine. Navy investigators are still trying to get the Iraqi families in the Haditha probe to change their minds.

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