Lawmakers suspect cover-up in killings


WASHINGTON -- Two influential legislators who have been briefed on the U.S. military's investigation into the deaths of 24 unarmed Iraqi civilians said yesterday that they suspect that senior officers were involved in covering up evidence of war crimes by the Marine unit involved.

Neither lawmaker - Sen. John W. Warner, a Virginia Republican and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Rep. John P. Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat and former Marine and a leading authority on military issues - said he had direct evidence of top officers trying to suppress information.

But both said the delay in a formal investigation into the incident in the western town of Haditha led them to suspect that officers up the chain of command had a role in attempting to keep the incident under wraps. They added that they expected that congressional hearings on the killings would focus on the military's reaction to evidence of an atrocity.

The killing of unarmed civilians, including women and children, occurred Nov. 19, but a formal investigation was not launched until reporters from Time magazine handed over video taken by an Iraqi journalist to military authorities in late January. A criminal inquiry was begun weeks later. "It's been six months since this happened," Murtha, who was one of the first congressmen briefed on the incident by Marine officials, said yesterday on ABC's This Week. "It's very simple: They went out the next day, they knew there was something wrong. Two or three days later, they decided that these people were murdered. ...

"Who said, `We're not going to publicize this thing; we're not even going to investigate it'? Until March, there was no serious investigation. There was an investigation right afterward, but then it was stifled."

Appearing on the same program, Warner was more cautious in his criticism but said there were "serious questions" about "what happened and when it happened and what was the immediate reaction of the senior officers in the Marine Corps when they began to gain knowledge of it."

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