By ROBERT BURNS
Evidence collected on the deaths of 24 Iraqis in Haditha supports accusations that U.S. Marines deliberately shot the civilians, including unarmed women and children, a Pentagon official said Wednesday.
Agents of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service have completed their initial work on the incident last November, but may be asked to probe further as Marine Corps and Navy prosecutors review the evidence and determine whether to recommend criminal charges, according to two Pentagon officials who discussed the matter on condition of anonymity.
The decision on whether to press criminal charges ultimately will be made by the commander of the accused Marines’ parent unit, the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Pendleton, Calif. That currently is Lt. Gen. John Sattler, but he is scheduled to move to a Pentagon assignment soon; his successor will be Lt. Gen. James Mattis.
Investigators conducted a wide range of interviews but did not obtain permission to exhume the bodies of the 24 who were killed, one official said.
The case is one of several involving alleged unjustified killings of Iraqi civilians that have emerged this year, damaging the military’s reputation for humane treatment of civilians and triggering calls by some Iraqi leaders to end the arrangement under which U.S. troops are immune from prosecution by Iraqi authorities.
The Marines initially reported after the Nov. 19, 2005 killings at Haditha that 15 Iraqi civilians had been killed by a makeshift roadside bomb and in crossfire between Marines and insurgent attackers. Based on accounts from survivors and human rights groups, Time magazine first reported in March that the killings were deliberate acts by the Marines.
A criminal investigation was then ordered by the top Marine commander in Iraq, Maj. Gen. Richard Zilmer.
A parallel investigation is examining whether officers in the Marines’ chain of command tried to cover up the events. The probe, which has not been made public, faults some officers for failing to pursue obvious discrepancies in the initial reports about what happened in Haditha and for not launching an early investigation.
Public attention on the Haditha case grew after Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., a former Marine, asserted publicly on May 17 that he had learned from Marine Corps officials that innocent Iraqis had been killed "in cold blood."
Lawyers for Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich, one of the Marines under investigation, argued in a lawsuit filed Wednesday in federal court that Murtha falsely accused Wuterich of murder and war crimes. The suit maintains that Pentagon officials "who have briefed or leaked information to Mr. Murtha deliberately provided him with inaccurate and false information" and that the congressman subsequently "has made repeated statements …. that are defamatory" to Wuterich and his fellow Marines.
Among the other cases of alleged deliberate killings of Iraqi civilians, seven Marines and one Navy corpsman have been charged with premeditated murder and other criminal acts in connection with the killing of an Iraqi man in Hamdania on April 26. Also, five soldiers and a former soldier have been charged in the March 12 rape-slaying of a young Iraqi woman and the killings of her relatives in Mahmoudiya.
Copyright 2006 The Associated Press