Exclusive: A Marine Denies Involvement in a Haditha Cover-up

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As the military continues its investigation of the alleged massacre of civilians in the Iraqi town of Haditha on Nov. 19, 2005, allegations of a cover-up have mounted. The New York Times on Friday reported that pages detailing what happened on that day in Haditha had been excised from the official logbook of the company involved in the incident. But the sergeant on duty the next day at the unit's operation center, where the logbook was kept, denies that he tampered with the logbook.

Through his lawyers, Staff Sergeant Frank D. Wuterich, the Marine who was the unit leader in Haditha on Nov. 19, says that, while he was on duty in the makeshift operations center the following day, he never handled the radio operator's green logbook. The logbook, he said, is usually kept by a low-ranking enlisted Marine and simply tracks the time of radio calls in and out of the center. Wuterich says he never took any pages out of the logbook and never "tampered" with it.

Wuterich says he also never saw any other more substantial logbook that would have contained so-called after-action reports — detailed descriptions of incidents. Other Marines with experience in Iraq say that such battlefield operation centers are often confused and informal settings where the rush of events prevents methodical record-keeping. They say it would be highly unusual to have so-called "after-action reports" kept there.

The Pentagon inquiries into Haditha were triggered by a TIME magazine story last spring, when it was discovered that several Iraqi civilians in Haditha had not been killed by an Improvised Explosive Device, as a Marine press release claimed, but instead had been killed by Marines. The dead, most of them killed in their homes, included women and children. Doubt has been cast on the Marines' claim that they were responding to what they believed to be an insurgent attack, and on whether any of the Iraqi dead were even armed.

The New York Times story also said that there is no official record of an AK-47 rifle that the Marines claim was taken from one of the town residents killed that day. But Wuterich's lawyers say their client has a clear memory of what was done with that AK-47; he says it was put into the first Humvee in his convoy, along with a suitcase taken from one of the Iraqi houses, by another Marine (whom the lawyers will not name). The AK-47 and the suitcase were to be taken back to base, tagged and put in a secure location. Wuterich says he does not know what happened to it after that.

Wuterich says he is anxious to have the investigations finished and be able to face any accusations openly. "This is just another thing the public will judge me by," he says of the latest reports. "I have no idea what these reports are talking about." He says he believes he acted appropriately that day, and has filed a lawsuit for defamation against Congressman John Murtha, who claimed last May that Marines had "killed in cold blood" in Haditha. No Marines who were in Haditha have yet been charged with a crime, and no Marine has been detained.

The Marines, however, removed three officers after the initial probes into Haditha, including Wuterich's commander. Military sources say they expect other officers to be punished for not thoroughly investigating the events. In addition, military sources have told TIME that they expect criminal charges to be brought in this case, as early as September, when Lt. Gen. James Mattis, the commander overseeing the case, is expected to complete his review of the investigation.

Though Wuterich may be among those charged, his lawyers insist he had no reason to believe he did anything wrong that day. According to the attorneys, one of Wuterich's commanders told him that he had recommended that Wuterich receive a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement medal for his actions in Haditha. As TIME previously reported, on Jan. 1, 2006, Wuterich got a promotion from sergeant to staff sergeant.