August 16, 2006

Marine Corps officer charged in Iraq assaults

By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The military has charged a U.S.
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 on Wednesday.

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.

Six other Marines were charged in the April 10 assaults
earlier this month, including three who also were charged in
the April 26 killing.

There has been a number of cases involving misconduct by
U.S. troops in Iraq, although U.S. military leaders maintain
the vast majority of American troops have conducted themselves
honorably. Very few of those charged have been officers.

"The charges are baseless. Lieutenant Phan has served the
Marine Corps honorably, and will continue to do so," said David
Sheldon, Phan's lawyer. Phan is assigned to Camp Pendleton in

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

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 U.S.
Central Command, is due to decide on whether charges are
warranted, officials said.