Pubdate: Mon, 05 Jun 2006
Source: Guardian, The (UK)
Copyright: 2006 Guardian Newspapers Limited
Author: Julian Borger, in Washington


Unit Accused of Abusing Drugs and Alcohol

Officers Relieved of Duty After Killing of 24 Iraqis

The marine unit involved in the killing of Iraqi civilians in Haditha 
last November had suffered a "total breakdown" in discipline and had 
drug and alcohol problems, according to the wife of one of the 
battalion's staff sergeants.

The allegations in Newsweek magazine contribute to an ever more 
disturbing portrait of embattled marines under high stress, some on 
their third tour of duty after ferocious door-to-door fighting in the 
Sunni insurgent strongholds of Falluja and Haditha.

Article continues The wife of the unnamed staff sergeant claimed 
there had been a "total breakdown" in the unit's discipline after it 
was pulled out of Falluja in early 2005.

"There were problems in Kilo company with drugs, alcohol, hazing 
[violent initiation games], you name it," she said. "I think it's 
more than possible that these guys were totally tweaked out on speed 
or something when they shot those civilians in Haditha."

The troops in Iraq have been ordered to take refresher courses on 
battlefield ethics, but a growing body of evidence from Haditha 
suggests the strain of repeated deployments in Iraq is beginning to 
unravel the cohesion and discipline of the combat troops.

"We are in trouble in Iraq," Barry McCaffrey, a retired army general 
who played a leading role in the Iraq war, told Time magazine. "Our 
forces can't sustain this pace, and I'm afraid the American people 
are walking away from this war."

The Newsweek account described a gung-ho battalion that had staged a 
chariot race, complete with captured horses, togas and heavy metal 
music, before the battle for Falluja in late 2004. The marines were 
given loose rules of engagement in the vicious urban warfare that followed.

"If you see someone with a cellphone," said one of the commanders was 
quoted as saying, half-jokingly, "put a bullet in their fucking head".

At one point in the battle, a marine from the 3rd battalion was 
caught on camera shooting a wounded, unarmed man as he lay on the 
ground. However, the marine involved was later exonerated.

The third battalion lost 17 men in 10 days in Falluja and by the time 
the troops arrived in Haditha, in autumn last year, it was clear 
morale had plummeted. A Daily Telegraph reporter who visited its 
headquarters early this year at Haditha Dam, on the outskirts of the 
town, described it as a "feral place" where discipline was 
"approaching breakdown". He reported that some marines had left the 
official living quarters and had set up separate encampments with 
signs ordering outsiders to keep out.

Other observers, however, have come away from time spent with the 
marines with different impressions. Lucian Read, a photographer who 
spent five months with Kilo company, said it was generally well led, 
although sometimes squads had to go on patrol without an officer 
because there were not enough to go around.

Mr Read told Time magazine that Kilo company was the "most human" of 
the many units he had accompanied in Iraq. "They were never abusive," 
he said. "There was a certain amount of antagonism and frustration 
when people didn't cooperate. But it's not like they had 'kill 'em 
all' spray-painted on the walls."

Three senior officers in the Haditha-based 3rd battalion of the first 
marine regiment, known as the Thundering Third, have been relieved of 
duty because of a "lack of confidence" in their leadership.

The officers include Captain Lucas McConnell, the head of Kilo 
company, which was directly involved in the deaths of 24 unarmed 
Iraqis there on November 19.

Another captain from the battalion, James Kimber, was relieved of 
duty for a separate incident, according to his lawyer, who said his 
subordinates in India company had sworn and derided Iraqi security 
forces in an interview with Sky News.

The commander of the third battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey 
Chessani, has also been made to step down pending the outcome of the 
Haditha investigation.

A criminal investigation conducted by navy investigators into the 
Haditha killings is still under way, but a parallel army inquiry into 
the wider issues has been completed. However, a military official 
said some findings might be withheld pending the principle inquiry findings.

On Saturday the Iraqi government rejected the findings of a US 
inquiry into the death of nine civilians in a US raid in the town of 
Ishaqi and said it would conduct its own investigation. 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake