Photos are said to show Iraqi victims

Marines accused of killing up to 24 unarmed civilians

May 27, 2006|By TONY PERRY AND JULIAN E. BARNES | TONY PERRY AND JULIAN E. BARNES,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Photographs taken by a Marine intelligence team have convinced investigators that a Marine unit killed up to 24 unarmed Iraqis, some of them "execution style," in the insurgent stronghold of Haditha after a roadside bomb killed one American last November, officials close to the investigation said yesterday.

The pictures are said to show wounds to the upper bodies of the victims, who included several women and six children. Some were shot in the head and some in the back, according to congressional and defense officials.

One government official said the pictures show that infantry Marines from Camp Pendleton "suffered a total breakdown in morality and leadership, with tragic results."

The case may be the most serious allegations of war crimes in Iraq by U.S. troops. Marine officers have long been worried that Iraq's bloody insurgency could prompt such an overzealous reaction by combat teams. An investigation by an Army general into the Nov. 19 incident is to be delivered soon to the top operational commander in Iraq. A separate criminal investigation is also under way and could lead to charges ranging from murder to dereliction of duty.

Both investigations are centered on a dozen Marines from the 3rd battalion, 1st Marine regiment, 1st Marine division. The battalion was on its third deployment to Iraq went the killings occurred.

Most of the fatal shots appear to have been fired by only a few of the Marines, possibly a four-man "fire team" led by a sergeant, said officials with knowledge of the investigation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The same sergeant is suspected of filing a false report playing down the number of Iraqis killed, saying they were killed by an insurgent bomb and that Marines entered the Iraqis' homes in search of gunmen firing at them. All aspects of his story are contradicted by pictures, statements by Marines to investigators and an inspection of the houses involved, officials said.

Other Marines may face criminal charges for not stopping the carnage or for not making accurate reports. Nineteen of the dead Iraqis were in three or four houses that Marines stormed. Five others were killed near a vehicle.

The intelligence team took the pictures shortly after the shooting stopped. Such teams are typically assigned to collect information on insurgents after firefights or other military engagements.

Investigators and top officers of the Camp Pendleton-based 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, which oversees Marine infantry, aviation and support units in Iraq have viewed the pictures.

The Nov. 19 incident began when a roadside bomb attached to a large propane canister exploded as Marines passed through the town on the Euphrates River. Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas, who was driving a Humvee, was killed instantly, and two other Marines were wounded.

Marines quickly determined that the bomb was a "line-of-sight" explosive that would have required someone to detonate it. Marines and Iraqi forces searched houses and other structures in the narrow, dusty streets. Jets dropped 500-pound bombs, and a drone aircraft circled overhead.

Time magazine, in a report published in late March, quoted witnesses including a 9-year-old girl, Eman Waleed, who said she saw Marines kill her grandfather and grandmother and that other adults in the house died shielding her and her 8-year-old brother, Abdul Rahman.

An elder in Haditha later went to Marine officials at the battalion's headquarters to complain of wanton killings. The Marines involved in the shooting initially reported that they had become embroiled in a firefight with insurgents after the explosion. However, evidence that emerged later contradicted that version.

"There wasn't a gunfight, there were no pock marked walls," a congressional aide said.

"The wounds indicated execution-style" shootings, said a Defense Department official who had been briefed on the contents of the photos.

The Marine Corps backed off its initial explanation, and the investigations were launched after Time published its account. Some lawmakers are asking the Marine Corps why an investigation wasn't launched earlier if the intelligence team's pictures taken immediately after the incident contradicted the squad's story. The pictures from the intelligence team would probably have been given to the battalion intelligence officer, and they should have raised questions immediately, one congressional aide said.

The intelligence teams are typically Marine Corps reservists, often police officers or other law enforcement officials in civilian life, who are embedded with active duty battalions or regiments.

Such questions were put to Marine Commandant Gen. Michael W. Hagee during a series of individual briefings over the past week. One focus of the administrative investigation by Army Maj. Gen. Eldon Bargewell is aimed at finding out how high up the Marine Corps chain of command the misreporting reached.

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