WASHINGTON — As many as seven Marines are accused of dragging an innocent Iraqi man from his home in April, killing him in cold blood and then trying to cover up the crime, NBC News has learned.
Further, military officials tell NBC that at least one of the Marines has reportedly confessed in the killing, saying they find the allegations especially disturbing because the case appears to have been a premeditated killing and not carried out in the heat of combat.
The revelations come on the heels of a visit to Iraq by the commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps to address concerns that Marines are becoming indifferent to killing and death.
The alleged incident occurred April 26 in the town of Hamandiyah. The Marines are accused of dragging the innocent man from his home, shooting him to death, then planting an AK-47 rifle and a shovel next to his body, apparently to make it appear the man had been burying an IED, one of the roadside bombs that have been so deadly to U.S. forces in Iraq.
As many as 19 Marines have been returned to Camp Pendleton in California pending investigations, officials tell NBC's Jim Miklaszewski. The Hamandiyah allegations mean the U.S. military is now investigating two separate incidents in which Marines are accused of killing innocent, unarmed Iraqi civilians.
Gen. Michael W. Hagee, the Marine Corps commandant, reportedly told members of Congress that Marines had killed as many as 24 innocent Iraqi civilians, including women and children, last November in Haditha, northwest of Baghdad, and not the 15 first reported.
Concerned by the assertions of cold-blooded killing by some in his service, Hagee on Thursday issued a strong message to the entire corps to have the “moral courage to do the right thing in the face of danger or pressure from other Marines.”
Fear of indifference to loss of life
Hagee said Thursday that he feared, based on the recent cases, that some Marines could become “indifferent to the loss of a human life.” His office announced that he was enroute to Iraq to reinforce the Corps’ standards of behavior in combat.
“We do not employ force just for the sake of employing force. We use lethal force only when justified, proportional and, most importantly, lawful,” Gen. Michael W. Hagee wrote in a statement issued by his office.
His statement and the announcement of his trip to Iraq came just hours after the Marine command in Iraq disclosed a criminal investigation into the Hamandiyah allegations. Iraqis made the charge during a meeting with Marine officers on May 1.
“Many of our Marines have been involved in life or death combat or have witnessed the loss of their fellow Marines, and the effects of these events can be numbing,” Hagee wrote. “There is the risk of becoming indifferent to the loss of a human life, as well as bringing dishonor upon ourselves.”
A spokesman for Hagee, Col. David Lapan, said the general had scheduled the trip long ago but in light of the latest allegations he decided to use the visit as an opportunity to reinforce Marine Corps values and standards.
“To a Marine, honor is more than just honesty; it means having uncompromising personal integrity and being accountable for all actions,” Hagee said in his statement.
Investigation into Haditha incident
A criminal investigation is under way in connection with the Haditha encounter, initially described as an ambush during a joint U.S.-Iraqi patrol that involved a roadside bombing in which a Marine died. However, residents of the neighborhood maintained that only U.S. forces were shooting after the explosion.
Videotape aired by an Arab television station showed images purportedly taken in the aftermath of the encounter: a bloody bedroom floor, bullet holes in walls and bodies of women and children. An Iraqi human rights group called for an investigation of what it described as another deadly mistake that had harmed civilians.
The military began its administrative investigation to review whether the Marines involved had lied about what happened. A House committee will review the military’s investigation next month.
On May 17, Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., a decorated former Marine, said the toll in the Haditha attack was far worse than originally reported and that U.S. troops killed innocent women and children “in cold blood.” He said that nearly twice as many people were killed than first reported, maintaining that U.S. forces are “overstretched and overstressed” by the war in Iraq.
Last August, the Marine Corps announced a criminal investigation into the death of the cousin of Iraq’s ambassador to Washington, Samir al-Sumaidaie, who was shot and killed during a search of his home in Haditha on June 25.
No announcement has been made about the findings of the investigation.
NBC's Jim Miklaszewski and The Associated Press contributed to this report.