US Marine Corps leader won't quit over Haditha case

WASHINGTON - The head of the US Marine Corps has taken responsibility for ensuring his troops are properly trained, but said he would not resign over a suspected massacre of Iraqi civilians in November.

"I serve at the pleasure of the president. And I have not submitted any resignation," Marine Corps Commandant General Michael Hagee told a Pentagon briefing on Wednesday local time.

He praised the honour and values of the Marine Corps while refusing to answer specific questions about two incidents in which Marines are suspected of killing unarmed civilians in Iraq - cases human rights activists call possible war crimes.

General Hagee deflected questions about military investigations that could lead to murder charges against Marines stemming from the November 19 deaths of two dozen civilians in Haditha, a city west of Baghdad.

He also declined comment on a probe into the April 26 killing of an Iraqi civilian in the village of Hamandiyah that also could lead to murder charges against Marines.

"As commandant, I am gravely concerned about the serious allegations concerning actions of some Marines at Haditha and Hamandiyah. I can assure you that the Marine Corps takes them seriously," General Hagee said.

"As commandant, I am the one accountable for organisation, training and equipping of Marines. I am responsible."

The sole official account offered by the Marines regarding Haditha came in a press release issued a day after the incident that asserted 15 civilians were killed by a roadside bomb that also killed a Marine.

However, a preliminary military inquiry later found evidence that the Marines killed two dozen Iraqi civilians in an unprovoked attack.

Offered an opportunity by a reporter to acknowledge that the initial press release was inaccurate, General Hagee refused, saying he could not comment until the investigations were complete.

In the April incident, investigators are examining whether Marines fatally shot a 52-year-old disabled Iraqi man in the face, then planted a rifle and a shovel next to his body to make it appear he was an insurgent placing a roadside bomb.

The recent incidents have raised questions about the training of Marines and other US troops in Iraq.

General Hagee recently returned from Iraq, where he gave Marines a message to "use lethal force only when justified, proportional and, most importantly, lawful."

The US command in Iraq last week ordered all troops to undergo new training on the need to follow legal, moral and ethical standards on the battlefield.

- REUTERS

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