CAMP PENDLETON, Calif, May 11 (Reuters) The general who oversaw US Marines in Haditha said he knew his troops had killed a large number of Iraqi civilians there in November 2005 but that he only learned months later of accusations the Marines may have committed murder.
The US killing of 24 Iraqi civilians has become one of the most notorious incidents in the US war in Iraq, but Marines at the time reported the deaths had occurred in a proper operation after a beloved Marine was killed.
Maj Gen Richard Huck, testifying yesterday remotely from the Pentagon in a pretrial hearing for one of seven Marines charged in the incident, described his reaction on learning of the Haditha deaths. He said he was told of eight enemy forces killed, 15 ''neutrals'' killed and two neutrals wounded.
''This is truly unfortunate, if these are neutrals, if this proves out, it is truly unfortunate,'' he said he thought in November 2005. ''The number (of casualties) is big. It was the circumstances as reported: an IED attack and small-arms fire with a group of neutrals walking through it.'' He referred to an improvised explosive device such as a bomb blast.
In February, Huck learned Time magazine was asking questions about the incident, which locals portrayed as a slaughter of innocent civilians in response to the death of a Marine in Haditha. The Marines charged in the case say it was a clearing operation, conducted under lawful orders, that had disastrous results.
''I support our account and do not see a need for further investigation,'' Huck said he told his superior in mid-February.
Huck spoke at a hearing on Capt Randy Stone, 34, a legal adviser for the company, and one of four men charged with dereliction of duty and obstructing the investigation. Three other Marines are charged with murder.
UNIT LEADER CALLED VERY DECENT Huck commanded 19,000 US military personnel at the time and 12,000 Iraqi soldiers and said he relied on staff reports of battle incidents such as in Haditha.
''If someone felt there was a need to investigate, it could have come up from a myriad of places,'' he said.
In earlier testimony relayed to the courtroom from Kuwait, 1st Lt. Adam Mathes, the company's executive officer at the time, said the Haditha town council lodged a complaint on Nov.
27 that 15 civilians had been killed.
Mathes said he told his superior officer, Capt. Lucas McConnell, 31, one of the four charged with dereliction of duty. ''He didn't seem to feel that it was a very big deal,'' he said.
Mathes said at the time many soldiers believed Iraqi insurgents would place civilians at risk to further their aims, and thus many US troops saw the Haditha killings in that perspective.
''It was a demonstration of how cheap (the insurgents) consider their own lives that they would use their own people for this attack. These are the lengths they are willing to go to conduct an attack on us,'' he said of such sentiment at the time.
Mathes also said said he believed squad leader Sgt. Frank Wuterich's account of events. Wuterich is one of three charged with murder in the incident.
''My impression of Sergeant Wuterich is that he is a very decent, quiet, mature guy. I didn't have any reason to question their integrity,'' Mathes said.
In testimony on Wednesday, another Marine said he saw Wuterich shoot and kill five Iraqis whose hands were tied. The Marine, Sgt. Sanick Dela Cruz, also admitted urinating on one of the men as he lay dead on the ground.
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