By Kristin Roberts

The head of the U.S. Marine Corps briefed Rep. John Murtha on the Haditha case after the vocal war critic publicly said Marines had killed innocent civilians in that Iraqi city, the Corps said on Thursday.

A group of Marines, while suspected in the killing of 24 Iraqi civilians, has not been charged, and official results from the military’s investigation remain outstanding. A U.S. defense official said on Wednesday, however that evidence indicates Marines deliberately shot to death unarmed civilians.

Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat, is being sued by one of the accused Marines for libel. He had told The Philadelphia Inquirer that Gen. Michael Hagee had given him the information on which he based his charge that Marines killed innocent civilians.

But a spokesman for the Marine Corps said Hagee briefed Murtha on May 24 about Haditha. Murtha had made comments on the case as early as May 17.

On May 17, for example, he said at a news conference, "Our troops overreacted because of the pressure on them and they killed innocent civilians in cold blood."

A spokeswoman for Murtha was not immediately available.

The Haditha case from November 2005 is just one of many cases in which U.S. troops are suspected of killing civilians.

One accused in the Haditha case, Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, sued Murtha on Wednesday for libel, saying the congressman had made false, misleading and defamatory statements.

Lawyers for Wuterich, 26, said they hoped the lawsuit would give them a chance to question Murtha about the source of his information at the Pentagon.

Lawyers for other Marines suspected in the case say they have been unable to cull any information from the Defense Department.

The military initiated two investigations into the Haditha case — a murder inquiry and a probe into the Marines’ procedures following the killings.

On Tuesday, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee said the results of the investigations should be delivered to Congress in September.

Under the murder inquiry, military criminal investigators have reviewed evidence indicating Marines deliberately shot to death the Iraqi civilians, a defense official said.

The investigation into the military’s response found Marine officers failed to respond properly to the conflicting reports of the killings, an official has said.

© 2006 Reuters

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