Military officials said Thursday that a criminal investigation into a firefight in western Iraq that left at least 15 civilians dead is not complete, but they did not dispute a congressman’s charges that the attack by Marines was far worse than originally reported.

Officials in the Pentagon and at U.S. Central Command declined to say whether Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., was correct in saying Marines killed innocent women and children “in cold blood” during the attacks last November. Murtha said U.S. troops overreacted and that nearly twice as many people were killed than first reported.

“There is an ongoing investigation, therefore any comment at this time would be inappropriate and could undermine the investigatory and possible legal process,” said Marine Lt. Col. Sean D. Gibson, spokesman for the Marine element of U.S. Central Command.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, in an interview Thursday with Bill O’Reilly of Fox News Channel, said the department is investigating the matter and, “needless to say, we have to take seriously allegations of that type. And they’re under investigation, and they will then be handled in the normal order of things.”

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said he would not comment on the veracity of Murtha’s remarks, but said individuals will be held accountable if it is determined they did something wrong. He added that U.S. troops “are facing a host of enemies in a tough and challenging environment every day.”

A criminal probe into the firefight in the western town of Haditha is being conducted by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. Whitman said it’s not clear when the investigation will be completed.

About a dozen Marines from the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, are being investigated for war crimes in connection with the firefight to determine if they violated the rules of military engagement.

During a Wednesday press conference on Capitol Hill, Murtha said the investigation will show that “in fact there was no firefight, there was no explosion that killed the civilians in a bus. There was no bus. There was no shrapnel, there was only bullet holes inside the house where the Marines had gone in.”

Murtha, a former Marine and veteran of combat in Vietnam, has been a consistent ally of the armed forces as a member of Congress. He has called in recent months for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.

A videotape taken by an Iraqi shows the aftermath of the alleged Haditha attack: a blood-smeared bedroom floor and bits of what appear to be human flesh and bullet holes on the walls.

The video, obtained by Time magazine, was broadcast a day after Haditha residents told The Associated Press that American troops entered homes and shot dead 15 members of two families, including a 3-year-old girl, after a roadside bomb killed a Marine.

Defense officials announced last month that three Marines from the 3rd Battalion were relieved of their commands in connection with problems during their deployment to Iraq. Gibson said it would be inappropriate to link their reassignments to the Haditha incident.

The three were reassigned to new duties within the division because of a lack of confidence in their leadership abilities, officials said at the time.


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