updated 6/6/2006 6:52:51 PM ET 2006-06-06T22:52:51

U.S. military investigators believe the killing of an Iraqi civilian on April 26 was planned by a small group of Marines who shot the man and then planted a shovel and an AK-47 rifle at the scene, a senior Pentagon official said Tuesday.

The official, who has direct knowledge of the investigation under way by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, said evidence found thus far indicates Marines entered the town of Hamdaniya in search of an insurgent and, failing to find him, grabbed an unarmed man from his home and shot him.

The AK-47 and the shovel, which were taken from another home before the shooting, were meant to make it look like the man had been digging a hole for a roadside bomb and was killed in an exchange of gunfire, the official said.

The official spoke only on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

Seven Marines and a Navy corpsman are being investigated in this case, but no charges have been filed. All eight were removed from duty with the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment in Iraq and are being held at Camp Pendleton, Calif.

The Marine Corps and Pentagon spokesmen have refused to comment on any aspect of the Iraqi man’s death since the investigation was announced May 24. In that announcement the Marines said Maj. Gen. Richard C. Zilmer, the commander of all Marine forces in Iraq, had asked for a criminal investigation after a preliminary probe found sufficient information to warrant further investigation.

Family of victim reportedly offered hush money
This case is unrelated to the shootings of 25 civilians last Nov. 19 in the city of Haditha by Marines from another unit. The NCIS also is investigating that case, and a parallel probe is reviewing what Pentagon officials have said appeared to be efforts by the Marines at Haditha to cover up the true circumstances of those killings.

The Washington Post reported on Monday that the Iraqi victim at Hamdaniya was Hashim Ibrahim Awad al-Zobaie, a 52-year-old disabled man shot four times in the face. His family told the Post that a small group of U.S. servicemen came to them last week and offered the family money in exchange for supporting the Marines’ version of the killing.

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