Mideast edition, Friday, May 18, 2007

ARLINGTON, Va. — Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Conway chided an Army colonel Thursday for apologizing for an incident in which special operations Marines allegedly overreacted and killed 19 Afghans.

That day, a suicide bomber in a minivan struck a Marine convoy, injuring one. Witnesses said the unit responded with heavy gunfire, shooting at any perceived threat for miles up the road.

By late March, the entire 120-man company was redeployed out of the country.

Last week, Col. John Nicholson, commander of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, told reporters that the military had made reparations payments and issued a formal apology to the families of Afghans killed and wounded in the March 4 incident.

Nicholson said that part of his apology read, “I stand before you today deeply, deeply ashamed and terribly sorry that Americans have killed and wounded innocent Afghan people.”

On Thursday, Conway called Nicholson’s apology “premature,” saying U.S. commanders make such reparations payments all the time, but they are not meant to imply guilt.

“When you take it to the next step and start making pronouncements about guilt or innocence, of the parties involved, to my way of thinking, that goes against the sort of tried and true element that says any serviceman or woman is innocent until proven guilty and senior military officials don’t talk about those things while they’re under investigation,” Conway said.

Asked if he would have preferred that Nicholson issued the payments but not the apology, Conway said, “That’s what I would have done.”

Marine Special Operations Command regrets the ambush reaction involving about 30 special operations Marines and has offered its “deepest sympathy” to the Afghan civilians involved, said MARSOC spokesman Maj. Cliff W. Gilmore.

“In the interest of preserving the presumption of innocence that all U.S. service members deserve when facing allegations of misconduct, we will not characterize the incident until we have all the facts,” said Gilmore on the MARSOC Web site.

Gilmore described the Marines in the special operations platoon that was ambushed as “mature, experienced, combat proven warriors” who are former Force Reconnaissance Marines.

“In total, the Force Recon Marines who formed the DASR [Direct Action/Special Reconnaissance] platoon of the first Marine Special Operations Company completed a 15-21 week process that thoroughly screened and selected them for the desired attributes of maturity, effective intelligence, judgment and determination,” Gilmore said.

Conway’s comments come after a lawmaker demanded a public apology this week from Army officials for their comments following the March expulsion of special forces Marines from Afghanistan.

Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., whose district includes Camp Lejeune, the headquarters for the Corps’ Special Operations Command, said recent comments from the Army seemed to blame Marines for the deaths of civilians following an ambush.

“Not only has the presumption of innocence been discarded, but the reputation of these Marines may be maligned,” he wrote in a letter to acting Army Secretary Pete Geren. “Please explain why the presumption of innocence does not apply to these Marines.”

In his letter, Jones called Nicholson’s words “contemptuous” and “irresponsible.” He called for a written apology to the Marine Corps, and a promise from the service to refrain from any additional public comments until an investigation is complete.

“As Secretary of the Army, your responsibility is to ensure that your subordinates disseminate the proper information to the press, especially if it involves another branch of the Armed Forces,” he wrote.

Army officials had no comment on the letter.

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