The Pentagon is investigating an alleged Marine rampage that may have left as many as two-dozen unarmed Iraqi civilians dead last November in the Iraqi town of Haditha. The numbers are far higher than had been previously reported and have shaken the Marine hierarchy.
Investigators are still piecing together what happened on a November morning in Haditha, a Sunni stronghold northwest of Baghdad. But they have some troubling details: 24 civilians died in a hail of gunfire, including 11 women and children, a government official familiar with the investigation tells NPR.
The initial reports said a roadside bomb blew up one Marine and 15 Iraqi civilians. The investigation has now turned that story upside down, revealing a much more disturbing chain of events, says the official, who asked not to be identified.
It all started when four Marine Humvees entered Haditha. A roadside bomb exploded, killing a Marine and wounding two others. The Marines jumped out and set up a defensive posture. Suddenly, a taxi carrying five Iraqi men pulled up. The Marines ordered the unarmed men out of the vehicle, and the five Iraqis were killed, the official said.
The Marines quickly began a search of four houses. Most of the Iraqi civilians killed were inside their houses. Only in that final house did Marines find an Iraqi male with an assault rifle. He, too, was killed, says the government official.
"Our troops overreacted because of the pressure on them, and they killed innocent civilians in cold blood," said Rep. John Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat and former Marine. "And that's what the report is going to tell."
Murtha says this "very serious incident" shows how the long deployments and a stubborn insurgency are affecting U.S. Marines and soldiers.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would only say that the investigation into what happened at Haditha continues. "Needless to say, we have to take seriously allegations of that type, and they're under investigation," Rumsfeld said.
The government official says the investigative file includes photos and videotape of the dead taken inside the four houses. Some of the photos and video were taken by Marines, others by Iraqis. The pictures, says the official, "are about as bad as I've ever seen."
At least three Marines from a 12-member squad are being investigated in the shootings. They are part of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment based at Camp Pendleton in California. The battalion is now back at Pendleton.
And there is a separate investigation into how the incident was originally reported by the Marines on Nov. 19. That day, the Marines issued a statement saying a roadside bomb killed one Marine and 15 Iraqi civilians. And the Marines said that eight suspected Iraqi insurgents were killed in a firefight with Marines.
But now there is uncertainty about whether any shots were fired from the houses, says the government official. Did the Marines take enemy fire? Were they confused in the ensuing chaos? Or did they lie about a firefight to cover up the carnage? Those are key questions for investigators, says the official.
What is clear is that the Marines' original version of the attack was not accurate. A defense official says pinpointing who allowed that lie to be reported up the chain of command is part of the investigation.
Last month, the battalion commander, a lieutenant colonel, was relieved from his position. And two captains, both company commanders in the battalion, were also relieved. But the Marines say the removal of those officers was not linked to the ongoing criminal investigation. Instead, the Marine division commander said it was due to a "lack of confidence in their leadership abilities."
The investigation about Haditha started in March following a report in Time magazine. The magazine quoted eyewitnesses and local officials who said that 15 civilians were killed when Marines went on a rampage.
"It's much worse than reported in Time magazine," Murtha said. "And there were about twice as many [deaths] as originally reported by Time. "
Following the Time report, Marine Gen. Richard Zilmer, commander of Marines in Western Iraq, called in the Naval Criminal Investigative Service to investigate the Haditha attacks.
The investigation is expected to be completed next month. The report will just lay out the facts. It will be up to the commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Pendleton to decide on criminal proceedings.