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IRAQ: General to take hot seat in court

May 31, 2008 |  8:42 am


His lawyers and supporters have long said that the criminal case against Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani, charged with dereliction of duty in the 2005 killing of 24 Iraqis in Haditha, has been trumped up for political purposes.

On Monday, Chessani's lawyers will get a chance in a Camp Pendleton courtroom to cross-examine the officer who brought the charges against Chessani: Gen. James Mattis (pictured).

The defense wants the case thrown out because of "undue command influence." It's not an unusual claim in military trials, although it is rarely successful.

Mattis has a complex — some might say contradictory — reputation among Marine generals.

He is known as an aggressive combatant who drives troops fast and furious. He led Marines into Afghanistan to help topple the Taliban in 2001 and was preparing to take his grunts cave hunting in Tora Bora to find Osama bin Laden until superiors, at the last moment, told him to back off.

In 2003 he led Marines into Iraq in the rush toward Baghdad, beating the Army across the Line of Departure. The next year he had the insurgents cornered in Fallouja until the White House ordered the attack halted. To his troops he's known as "Mad Dog" Mattis.

But at the same time, he holds his Marines, particularly officers, to high standards of conduct. He advanced investigations that led to charges against Marines for Iraqi deaths in Haditha, Hamandiya, Fallouja and a detention center outside Nasiriyah. He was also instrumental in the censure of a two-star general and two colonels in the Haditha case.

His philosophy is that, particularly in a counterinsurgency, allowing misconduct to go unpunished can lead to a loss of the moral high ground and undercut hard-fought victories on the battlefield.

Chessani's attorneys assert that Mattis, by allowing one of his top lawyers to attend certain meetings while the Haditha investigation was underway, was signaling that he wanted a case to be built, regardless of the facts. It may be a tough sell to the judge.

Still, the judge in Chessani's case has given the defense a partial victory: ordering the prosecution to disprove the defense assertions. Mattis, who was commanding general of the Marine Forces Central Command when the Haditha charges were brought, is now c.g. of a joint forces command at Norfolk, Va. and also Supreme Allied Commander (for) Transformation at NATO.

Chessani is charged with dereliction for not ordering a full-scale war crimes investigation when his Marines killed two dozen civilians during a chaotic day that began when a roadside bomb killed one Marine and injured two others.

"This case is dripping with double standards and political intrigue as the Pentagon attempts to appease Washington's political establishment and the press," said Richard Thompson, chief counsel for the Thomas More Law Center, which is representing Chessani.

— Tony Perry in San Diego

Photo: Gen. James Mattis, then a major general, during the assault on Baghdad. Credit: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times