This story was originally published on Nov. 17, 2004
BAGHDAD, Iraq — As U.S. and Iraqi officials expressed concerns and regrets about the fatal shooting by a U.S. Marine of a wounded and apparently unarmed man in a Fallujah mosque, the U.S. military said Wednesday it is investigating whether other wounded Iraqis in the mosque were similarly killed.
American and Iraqi authorities have been trying to stem outrage over the shootings among Iraqis, particularly the Sunni Arab minority, and Arabs across the region. U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte expressed regret over the shooting but said Wednesday it should not undermine U.S. efforts to remove guerrillas from the city.
The U.S. military said Tuesday it was investigating after pool video footage by NBC showed a Marine shooting a wounded man lying in a Fallujah mosque during an operation Saturday of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment.
Military investigators also are looking into whether more than one wounded insurgent was shot in the mosque, said Maj. Francis Piccoli, a spokesman for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.
Two others had fatal gunshot wounds
Two other men visible on the NBC video appear to be suffering from what the network described as fresh and fatal gunshot wounds.
Meanwhile a statement from Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s office said that the leader of Iraq’s interim government “is very concerned by allegations of an illegal killing by multinational forces in Fallujah.
It said Allawi had broached the matter with the commander of the multinational force in Iraq, Gen. George Casey.
“Gen. Casey has assured the prime minister that an urgent inquiry is under way, and that he will share its findings with the Iraqi government in full and with complete transparency,” the statement said. “Unlike others, the prime minister will await the outcome of the investigation before commenting any further on this incident.”
Negroponte said “no one can be happy” about the incident, “but the important point is that the individual in question will be dealt with.”
“The matter is being looked into and whatever measures are necessary under our system of military justice I know will be taken,” he said.
U.S. envoy calls killing an isolated incident
“But I don’t think that (the incident) in any way is a reflection on the quality and caliber of absolutely fine young servicemen and women we have serving here in Iraq,” he said during his first visit to Sadr City, a large Shiite Muslim district of Baghdad.
The shooting occurred when a Marine unit entered the mosque and found five men wounded in fighting at the site the day before, when another Marine unit clashed with gunmen apparently using the mosque to fire from, according to NBC’s Kevin Sites, the pool correspondent who took the footage.
In the video, as the cameraman moved into the mosque, a Marine can be heard shouting obscenities in the background, yelling that one of the men was only pretending to be dead. The Marine then raises his rifle toward an Iraqi lying on the floor of the mosque and shoots the man.
Sites, in the first report on the incident on Monday, said the man who was killed didn’t appear to be armed or threatening in any way, with no weapons visible in the mosque.
Earlier in the footage, as the Marine unit that Sites was accompanying approached the mosque, gunfire can be heard from inside. Marines who were already in the mosque emerge, and a lieutenant in the approaching unit asks if there were insurgents inside and if the Marines had shot any of them. An exiting Marine can be heard responding affirmatively. The lieutenant then asks if they were armed, and the Marine shrugs.
Two men seen slumped against wall
After the Marines that Sites accompanied entered the mosque, the video showed two other men slumped by a wall. Sites’ account said the men, who were hurt in the previous day’s attack, had been shot again by the Marines on Saturday.
The Marine seen shooting the insurgent had been wounded in the face a day earlier and quickly returned to action, Sites reported. The Marine has not been identified.
Another Marine in the man's unit was killed the previous day by the booby-trapped body of an insurgent, a fact that international legal experts said could provide the Marine with a defense if charges are filed against him. A key issue was whether the injured man was a prisoner at the time, they said.
International legal experts said protection of injured combatants once they are out of action is a basic rule in warfare but that the Marine shown in the video may have acted in self-defense.
Charles Heyman, a British infantry veteran and senior defense analyst with Jane’s Consultancy Group in London, defended the Marine, saying soldiers are taught that the enemy “is at his most dangerous when he is severely injured.”
Other experts contacted by The Associated Press were careful to avoid a public judgment because of the dangerous and uncertain situation in Fallujah, where U.S. troops were still fighting insurgents.
“It’s clearly recognized that people in combat situations are under enormous strain,” International Red Cross spokesman Florian Westphal said in Geneva. “Obviously, we were not on the spot, so we cannot judge the precise circumstances of what was being shown here.”
Westphal said the Geneva Conventions are clear: Protection of wounded combatants once they are out of action is an absolute requirement.
However, the status of the wounded man was unclear. A different Marine unit had come under fire from the mosque on Friday. Those Marines stormed the building, killing 10 men and wounding five, according to Sites. He said Marines treated the wounded and left them.
The same five men were in the mosque Saturday when Marines from another unit arrived. Westphal said he couldn’t say for sure from NBC’s account whether the man was a prisoner.
Heyman said there is a danger that a wounded enemy may try to detonate a hidden firearm or a grenade, and if the man made the slightest move “in my estimation they would be justified in shooting him.”
No matter what the eventual finding of the investigation, the incident could cause major political problems for Allawi's government and his U.S. backers at a time when Iraqi authorities are seeking to contain a backlash among Sunnis to the invasion of the former insurgent stronghold of Fallujah.
American and Iraqi authorities tried to prevent rage from spreading among Sunnis, many of whom watched dramatic footage of the shooting that aired throughout the day on Al-Jazeera television, a Qatar-based satellite station.
‘Was he a fighter?’
“Look at this old man who was slain by them,” said Ahmed Khalil, 40, as he watched the video in his Baghdad shop. “Was he a fighter? Was anybody who was killed inside this mosque a fighter? Where are their weapons? I don’t know what to say.”
It was unclear to what extent other Iraqis, particularly the majority Shiite Muslims, cared about the shooting.
Maysoun Hirmiz, 36, a Christian merchant in Baghdad, said she was not satisfied by an announcement by the U.S. military that it had removed the Marine from the battlefield and will investigate whether he acted in self-defense.
“They will say or do the same thing they did with the soldiers who committed the abuses against Iraqi detainees in Abu Ghraib prison, and they are still free, enjoying their lives while they destroyed other peoples’ lives,” Hirmiz said.
The central figures who allegedly carried out the physical abuse and sexual humiliation of inmates at the notorious prison west of Baghdad are currently on trial, facing trial or have already been sentenced.
The Abu Ghraib scandal, which erupted last spring when photos of the abuse became public, generated a worldwide wave of revulsion that raised questions about the treatment of Muslim prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere as part of the Bush administration’s war on terror.
NBC News correspondent Jim Miklaszewski and the Associated Press contributed to this report.