Cleared of Wrongdoing in Haditha?

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United States Marine Corps Major General Richard Huck, left, and Major General Stephen Johnson.

It's been almost a year since the alleged massacre of 24 Iraqi civilians by U.S. troops in the town of Haditha on November 19, 2005, which was first reported by TIME. Yet after 10 months of probes no one in the U.S. military has been formally punished, criminally charged or even officially cleared. That, however, is soon about to end.

While unnamed Pentagon sources and outsiders have speculated that senior Marine commanders knew — or should have known — exactly what the Marines did on the ground that day, military sources now say that both Marine two-star generals in Iraq at the time will likely be cleared of any serious criminal wrongdoing.

An initial administrative investigation led by Army Major General Eldon Bargewell found several failures by the top two Marine officers, Major General Steve Johnson and Major General Richard Huck. The failures, or "red flags," that were uncovered so troubled the Marine Corps that it took the unusual step of ordering a special criminal inquiry by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) to see if serious charges should be brought — a rare move to consider against officers so far up the chain of command.

That process was further complicated by the fact that the Bargewell report was quite vague in parts, says a source who has seen it. Under the doctrine of command responsibility, superior officers can be considered responsible for war crimes committed by their subordinates if they were in a position to prevent the crimes and failed to do so. That NCIS investigation has now been completed and has not found enough evidence to bring serious charges — such as criminal negligence or obstruction of justice — against either Johnson or Huck because they did not know the details of what happened in Haditha, say government sources.

Still, the two generals will likely face some kind of formal punishment. The senior Marine general in Iraq at the time, Johnson, has already had a planned promotion to a three-star job stalled and his career may be finished, according to military sources. Huck, who had already left the Corps to prepare for retirement, has been ordered back into uniform because of the investigation and is working for a senior officer.

As for the Marines who were on the ground in Haditha that day, they too will soon learn what charges they might face. Military sources say Lt. General James Mattis, the senior officer responsible for deciding whether to press charges and the punishments if the Marines are found guilty, will make his recommendations in mid-December. Three Marines, including Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, may be charged with murder for their actions in Haditha after their squadmate, Lance Corporal Miguel Terrazas, was killed by an IED in the early morning of that fateful day. The Marines on the ground are alleged to have retaliated by entering several houses in the area and killing the civilians, including women and children. Wuterich's attorney has challenged that version, instead arguing the Marines came under enemy fire and acted in self-defense.

A Marine spokesman would not comment about the invesitgations or when they might end. "The investigation is ongoing... as soon as the facts are known and decisions on future actions are made, we will make that information available to the public to the fullest extent allowable," says Lt. Col. Sean Gibson."

The long delay in justice hasn't stopped others from making their own judgments about Haditha. Many observers and politicans have already decided those involved are guilty — Democratic Congressman and former Marine John Murtha has claimed that the Marines "killed in cold blood," comments for which Wuterich has filed a defamation lawsuit against Murtha. Others have asserted that civilian casualties are a tragic reality of a morally confusing battlefield. The truth, as it always is in the fog of war, is likely somewhere in between.