“Kill counts,” coverups and the chain of command

Confronting ultimate responsibility for a trail of atrocities in Iraq.

Topics: War Room, Iraq, Middle East,

The infamous “few rotten apples” explanation for the catastrophe at Abu Ghraib prison may finally be receding as the Pentagon confronts a recent string of alleged atrocities elsewhere in Iraq — and a necessary accountability up the chain of command. The Los Angeles Times reports today:

“Military prosecutors and investigators probing the killing of three Iraqi detainees by U.S. troops in May believe the unit’s commanders created an atmosphere of excessive violence by encouraging ‘kill counts’ and possibly issuing an illegal order to shoot Iraqi men. At a military hearing Wednesday on the killing of the detainees near Samarra, witnesses painted a picture of a brigade that operated under loose rules allowing wanton killing and tolerating violent, anti-Arab racism.

“Some military officials believe that the shooting of the three detainees and the killing of 24 civilians in November in Haditha reveal failures in the military chain of command, in one case to establish proper rules of engagement and in the other to vigorously investigate incidents after the fact. ‘The bigger thing here is the failure of the chain of command,’ said a Defense Department official familiar with the investigations.”

Yesterday, the Pentagon also announced the completion of its primary investigation into Haditha, which found that Marines had deliberately shot the civilians, including unarmed women and children. The Los Angeles Times adds today that while the investigation doesn’t explicitly accuse the Marine command in Iraq of a coverup, it “cites several instances of information being ignored or evidence being destroyed, including log entries from the day the killings took place.”

Initial findings indicate that results of a probe into the Samarra incident could be “even more troubling,” the Times reports. “Military officials are investigating Army Col. Michael Steele, the commander of the 101st Airborne Division’s 3rd Brigade, whose soldiers are accused of killing the three Iraqi detainees. Investigators are trying to determine whether Steele issued an illegal order to ‘kill all military aged males’ and encouraged unrestrained killing by his troops.”

Rep. Jack Murtha of Pennsylvania, who back in May charged that the Haditha slayings were done “in cold blood,” and who is now being sued for defamation by one of the Marines involved, clarified his remarks in a statement Thursday. According to the Washington Post, he also reiterated his call for the removal of U.S. troops from Iraq. “When I spoke up about Haditha, my intention was to draw attention to the horrendous pressure put on our troops in Iraq and to the cover-up of the incident,” Murtha said in a written statement. “Our troops are caught in the middle of a tragic dilemma. The military trains them to fight a conventional war and use overwhelming force to protect U.S. lives. I agree with that policy, but when we use force, we often kill civilians. What are the consequences?”

Combat soldiers are trained to dehumanize and kill the enemy, and the rules of engagement no doubt can get clouded in perilous guerrilla war zones, as many parts of Iraq have become. Murtha’s question about consequences must indeed apply not only to hardened leaders like Steele, but to the leaders back in Washington who thrust him and his men into the whole mess in the first place.

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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