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Marines will not seek to reinstate charges against top officer in Haditha killings

August 28, 2009 |  1:11 pm

The Marine Corps has decided not to seek to reinstate criminal charges against a former battalion commander at Camp Pendleton for a 2005 incident in which his troops killed 24 civilians in Haditha, Iraq.

Chessani Instead, the Marine Corps will convene a Board of Inquiry to hear testimony and recommend whether Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani should be demoted to major for purposes of retirement.

Even if such a recommendation is made and then accepted by the Secretary of the Navy, Chessani's retirement pay would still be based on being a lieutenant colonel.

The Marine Corps had sought to try Chessani for dereliction of duty for not ordering a war-crimes investigation when his Marines killed the 24, including three women and seven children. Chessani, who was not present when the killings occurred, reported to his superiors that the deaths, while tragic, were the result of fighting between Marines and insurgents.

A court-martial judge threw out the charges after ruling that it was improper for a Marine lawyer who investigated the Haditha shootings to sit in on meetings with the general who decided to bring the charges.

The Navy-Marine Corps Court of Appeals agreed with the judge's ruling and rejected prosecutors' requests to reinstate the charges. The court, however, said the Marine Corps could begin a new criminal investigation into Chessani's conduct and then bring new charges.

But Lt. Gen. George Flynn, assigned by the commandant, Gen. James Conway, to decide what course the Marine Corps should take, decided against a new investigation and a resumption of a criminal case.

He has ordered a Board of Inquiry to recommend whether Chessani "committed substandard performance of duty, misconduct and professional dereliction of duty" and deserves to be demoted for retirement.

Chessani, 43, a 22-year veteran, has already applied for retirement. He was commander of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment in November 2005 when his troops swept through a neighborhood looking for insurgents who had just detonated a roadside bomb that killed a Marine and injured two others.

Eight Marines were initially charged in the case.

With Flynn's decision, only the squad leader, Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, faces possible court-martial. Wuterich's attorneys are seeking dismissal of the charges on the same grounds of "undue command influence" that led to charges against Chessani being thrown out.

Six Marines, including Chessani, have had charges dismissed. One was acquitted.

Chessani, who was on his third combat tour in Iraq, was a highly praised officer, possibly on a fast track to becoming a general, when the Haditha incident occurred. Instead he became the highest ranking Marine accused of a crime in Iraq or Afghanistan.

The Marine Corps' decision was announced today at Quantico, Va., where Flynn is commanding general, Marine Corps Combat Development Command. The Board of Inquiry is set for Camp Pendleton.

-- Tony Perry in San Diego

Photo: Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani  Credit: Associated Press