Image: Haditha
Hammurabi Human Rights Group Via  /  AP
What appears to be a makeshift morgue is set up following a raid by U.S. forces in November 2005 in Haditha, Iraq. Residents say Marines killed unarmed civilians.
updated 5/26/2006 2:21:37 PM ET 2006-05-26T18:21:37

Investigators believe that their criminal investigation into the deaths of about two dozen Iraqi civilians points toward a conclusion that Marines committed unprovoked murders, a senior defense official said Friday.

The Marine Corps initially reported 15 deaths and said they were caused by a roadside bomb and an ensuing firefight with insurgents. A separate investigation is seeking to determine if Marines lied to cover up the killings.

The official, who discussed the matter on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the yet-to-be-completed investigation, said the evidence developed by investigators strongly indicates the killings last November in the insurgent-plagued city of Haditha in the western province of Anbar were unjustified.

The official did not disclose specific evidence. The incident, if confirmed, could be the most serious case of criminal misconduct by U.S. troops during three years of combat in Iraq.

A spokesman at Marine Corps headquarters in the Pentagon, Lt. Col. Scott Fazekas, declined to comment on the status of the investigation. He said no information would be provided until the probe was completed.

'Not the result of an accident'
According to a congressional aide, lawmakers were told in a briefing Thursday that it appears as many as two dozen civilians were killed. And they were told that the investigation will find that “it will be clear that this was not the result of an accident or a normal combat situation.”

Another congressional official said lawmakers were told it would be about 30 days before a report would be issued by the investigating agency, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.

Pentagon spokesman Eric Ruff said Friday he believes the investigation is winding down, but he would not comment on what the evidence shows.

Ruff would not characterize the extent of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s concern about the matter, but said he is being kept apprised of the investigations.

Ruff said he did not expect any announcements in the next few days.

The Los Angeles Times reported on Friday that investigators have concluded that the Marines killed unarmed civilians, including women and children, at Haditha last November, and that they tried to cover it up.

The New York Times reported on Friday that two lawyers involved in discussions about individual Marines’ defenses said they thought the investigation could result in murder charges. The lawyers were not identified.

On Thursday, The Washington Times reported that defense lawyers expect the Marines to file murder charges against at least one Marine involved in the incident.

Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., said last week that he was told by Marine Corps officials that the civilians were killed “in cold blood.” He said there were nearly twice as many killed as the 15 initially reported by the Marines.

General warns against callousness
On Thursday, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Michael W. Hagee flew to Iraq to warn his troops against allowing the unrelenting insurgent violence to leave them callous to human suffering and the loss of life.

“We do not employ force just for the sake of employing force. We use lethal force only when justified, proportional and, most importantly, lawful,” Hagee wrote in a statement issued by his office. Aides said it was the basis of remarks he intended to make to Marines in Iraq this week.

The military initially described the Haditha encounter as an ambush during a joint U.S.-Iraqi patrol that involved a roadside bombing in which a Marine died, followed by a firefight. However, residents of the neighborhood maintained that only U.S. forces were shooting after the explosion.

On Wednesday, the Marines disclosed that they also have asked for a criminal investigation into allegations that an unspecified number of Marines killed an Iraqi civilian west of Baghdad on April 26.

It is the second allegation of Marines killing civilians in recent months.

“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 said in his statement. “There is the risk of becoming indifferent to the loss of a human life, as well as bringing dishonor upon ourselves.”

“To a Marine, honor is more than just honesty; it means having uncompromising personal integrity and being accountable for all actions,” Hagee said. He urged all Marines to have the moral courage to “do the ‘right thing’ in the face of danger or pressure from other Marines.”

He referred to “recent serious allegations about actions of Marines in combat,” but he did not specifically cite the two cases — one from last November and the other in April — of alleged killings of civilians.

Enough for a criminal investigation
In Wednesday’s announcement of the latest criminal investigation, Marine officials said a preliminary probe had found enough information to recommend a full investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigation Service.

The Marine Corps provided no details about the alleged killing, including either the gender or age of the victim. It said “several service members” from the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, based in the Fallujah area about 40 miles west of Baghdad, were suspected of involvement. They were “removed from operations” and sent back to the U.S. pending the results of the criminal investigation, it said.

John Sifton, a counterterrorism researcher with the Human Rights Watch, said his group’s review of available information on the Haditha attack leads him to conclude there is no room for doubt that it was a case of murder.

“This was an intentional killing of unarmed civilians,” Sifton said.

Both the House and Senate armed services committees plan to hold hearings on the matter. Hagee met with top lawmakers from those panels this week and discussed the November and April incidents.

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