updated 3/16/2006 8:22:35 PM ET 2006-03-17T01:22:35

The military has opened a criminal investigation into a November 2005 firefight between U.S. Marines and insurgents near Baghdad that left 15 Iraqi civilians dead, defense officials said Thursday.

The inquiry will attempt to determine whether the Marines involved in the firefight in Haditha acted appropriately when they fired on the civilians following a roadside bomb attack, said a military official who requested anonymity because the investigation has not been announced yet. The civilians were hit during that battle.

Military officials in Iraq completed a preliminary investigation and have forwarded it to the Navy Criminal Investigative Service. Several defense officials acknowledged the investigation is taking place, though the details were provided by one official.

According to the official, the initial allegations of possible violations were brought to the attention of the military by a reporter in mid-February.

Fifteen Iraqis, eight insurgents and a U.S. Marine were killed in the incident, which began when a roadside bomb detonated next to a joint Iraqi-U.S. squad patrolling Haditha. Immediately after the explosion, insurgents attacked the patrol with small arms, sparking the firefight.

The Marine killed was assigned to Regimental Combat Team 2 of the 2nd Marine Division; two other Marines were injured. Defense officials Thursday would not identify the unit or Marines involved in the investigation. While several Iraqis were part of the patrol, they are not involved in the investigation, the official said.

Hostile intent?
Military officials will try to determine whether the Marines positively identified or tried to identify the enemy and whether they determined there was hostile intent, as they are supposed to do.

The law regulates international military operations, and anyone found in violation can be held liable for war crimes and be court-martialed under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

It is not uncommon for insurgents to launch attacks from homes, hospitals and other public buildings, where civilians can get caught in the crossfire.

The official said the investigation is not focused on any one individual. About a dozen Marines were involved in the incident.

As the Iraq war ends its third year, estimates vary on civilian casualties. President Bush has said he thinks at least 30,000 Iraqis had been killed as of December, while some researchers put the number at 50,000 or more.

More than 2,300 U.S. military have died, but the Pentagon does not release a tally of civilian or insurgent deaths.

The investigation was first reported by CNN.

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