WASHINGTON - The military has charged a US Marine Corps officer with assaulting three Iraqi civilians in April, accusing him of beating and choking them and placing a pistol in one victim's mouth, the Marines said today.
The officer, 2nd Lt. Nathan Phan, was charged with three counts of assault and one count of making a false official statement relating to the incident on April 10, near Hamdania, a town west of Baghdad.
Phan, 26, was the platoon leader of the troops charged with premeditated murder in the fatal shooting of an Iraqi man on April 26 in the same town, the Marines said, but he was not charged in relation to that incident.
Seven Marines and a Navy medic were charged in June with premeditated murder in the man's killing. All could face the death penalty if convicted.
There have been a number of cases involving misconduct by US troops in Iraq, although US military leaders maintain the vast majority of American troops have conducted themselves honourably. Very few of those charged have been officers.
"The charges are baseless. Lieutenant Phan has served the Marine Corps honourably, and will continue to do so," said David Sheldon, Phan's lawyer. Phan is assigned to Camp Pendleton in California.
Prosecutors accused Phan of putting an unloaded M9 pistol into the mouth of one of the civilians and choking him. They said Phan struck another civilian with closed fists and knees in the face, head and torso, and choked a third civilian.
The military said Phan in all three cases used "force likely to produce death or grievous bodily harm."
The military identified as male the three civilians Phan was charged with assaulting and provided their names but not their ages.
Sheldon said he believes prosecutors may have based the charges against Phan on statements made to them by "some of the people implicated" in the April 26 murder, but did not say who. "I think you have to look at the source," he said.
Sheldon said he believed prosecutors have investigated whether Phan played a role in the April 26 murder but have not come forward with charges in the incident.
Lt. Col. Sean Gibson, a Marine spokesman, said he could not say one way or the other whether Phan was under investigation in the murder case.
The Marines said their leadership first learned of the April 10 assault incident in early May while investigating the April 26 murder. Phan returned from Iraq to Camp Pendleton in May.
The next step in the assault case will be an Article 32 hearing, roughly the military equivalent of grand jury proceedings, which will be influential in determining whether Phan will be brought to trial. The military said no date had been set.
Meanwhile, the military has not yet decided whether to bring charges against Marines suspected of killing two dozen civilians in the town of Haditha last November.
Lt. Gen. James Mattis, the new top Marine general in US Central Command, is due to decide on whether charges are warranted, officials said.