Marines likely to face charges in Iraq killings

May 26, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- A military investigation into the deaths of two dozen Iraqis last November is expected to find that a small number of Marines in western Iraq carried out extensive, unprovoked killing of civilians, congressional, military and Pentagon officials said yesterday.

Two lawyers involved in discussions about individual Marines' defenses said they thought the investigation could result in charges of murder, a capital offense.

That possibility and the emerging details of the killings have raised fears that the incident could be the gravest case involving misconduct by American ground forces in Iraq.

Officials briefed on preliminary results of the inquiry said the civilians killed at Haditha, a lawless, insurgent-plagued city deep in Sunni-dominated Anbar province, did not die from a makeshift bomb, as the military first reported, or in cross-fire between Marines and attackers, as was later announced. A separate inquiry has been started to find whether the events were deliberately covered up.

Evidence indicates that the civilians were killed during a sustained sweep by a small group of Marines that lasted three to five hours and included shootings of five men standing near a taxi at a checkpoint and killings inside at least two homes that included women and children, officials said. That evidence, described by congressional, Pentagon and military officials briefed on the inquiry, suggested to one congressional official that the killings were "methodical in nature."

Congressional and military officials say the Naval Criminal Investigative Service inquiry is focusing on the actions of a Marine Corps staff sergeant serving as squad leader at the time, but that Marine officials have told members of Congress that up to a dozen other Marines in the unit are also under investigation. Officials briefed on the inquiry said that most of the bullets that killed the civilians are now thought to have been "fired by a couple of rifles," as one of them put it.

The killings were first reported by Time magazine in March, based on accounts from survivors and human rights groups, and members of Congress have spoken publicly about the episode in recent days. But the new accounts from congressional, military and Pentagon officials added significant new details to the picture. All of those who discussed the case had to be granted anonymity before they would talk about the findings emerging from the continuing investigation.

A second, parallel inquiry was ordered by the second-ranking general in Iraq to examine whether any Marines on the ground at Haditha, or any of their superior officers, attempted to cover up the killings by filing false reports up the chain of command. That inquiry, conducted by an Army officer assigned to the Multinational Corps headquarters in Iraq, is expected to report its findings in coming days.

In an unusual sign of high-level concern, the commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Michael W. Hagee, flew from Washington to Iraq yesterday to give a series of speeches to his forces re-emphasizing compliance with international laws of armed conflict, the Geneva Conventions and the American military's own rules.

"Recent serious allegations concerning actions of Marines in combat have caused me concern," Hagee said in a statement issued upon his departure. The statement did not mention any specific incidents.

The first official report from the military, issued on Nov. 20, said that "a U.S. Marine and 15 Iraqi civilians were killed yesterday from the blast of a roadside bomb," and that "immediately following the bombing, gunmen attacked the convoy with small-arms fire."

Military investigators have since uncovered a far different set of facts than first reported, partially aided by Marines who are cooperating with the inquiry and partially guided by reports filed by a separate unit that arrived to gather intelligence and document the attack; those reports contradicted the original version of the Marines, Pentagon officials said.

One senior Defense Department official who has briefed on the initial findings, when asked how many of the 24 dead Iraqis were killed by the improvised bomb as initially reported, paused and said, "Zero."

While Haditha was rife with violence and gunfire that day, the Marines, who were assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, and are now back at Camp Pendleton, Calif., "never took what would constitute hostile fire of a seriously threatening nature," one Pentagon official said.

Women and children were among those killed, as well as five men who had been traveling in a taxi near the bomb, which killed Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas of El Paso, Texas.

Although investigators are still piecing together the string of deaths, congressional and Pentagon officials said the five men in the taxi were either pulled from the vehicle or got out at a Marine checkpoint and were shot.

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