Pentagon Probes Marine Killings in Iraq

The Pentagon is investigating allegations that U.S. Marines killed 24 mostly unarmed Iraqi citizens in the mostly Sunni town of Haditha in November 2005. It's clear that an initial report on the incident was a lie.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Last movement in Haditha, Iraq, that's northwest of Baghdad, U.S. Marines may have killed 24 mostly unarmed Iraqi civilians in cold blood. Investigations into the incident are underway.

Tom Bowman is NPR's Pentagon correspondent and he is here with us in the studio this morning. Hello, Tom.

Mr. TOM BOWMAN (NPR Pentagon Correspondent): Good morning.

WERTHEIMER: Haditha has been described as a Sunni stronghold. What's known for certain about what happened there last November?

Mr. BOWMAN: What we know is that four Marine Humvees rolled into Haditha on the morning of November 19 and they hit a roadside bomb, killing one Marine and injuring two other. In the initial reports were that 15 Iraqi civilians were killed by that roadside bomb. Now we know that that's not the case and that the new number is 24 civilians, including 11 women and children.

WERTHEIMER: And not killed by the bomb?

Mr. BOWMAN: No. What happened was the Marines shot these civilians and the question is were they in a fire fight, were they taking fire from these four houses they were clearing, or did they believe they were taking fire? And that is uncertain. Also, right after the roadside bomb, a taxicab pulled up with five Iraqi males inside. They were ordered out of their cab by the Marines and they were unarmed and all of them were killed by the Marines.

WERTHEIMER: Now, the Marines in question were from the Third Battalion, the first Marine regiment, and they are back now, I believe, in Camp Pendleton. Time magazine was the first to report on the incident. How did they learn about it?

Mr. BOWMAN: Well, Iraqi human rights activists contacted Time magazine and told them about Haditha and that the initial report of a roadside bomb killing civilians wasn't accurate, and in their discussions with Iraqi officials and the survivors, they painted a different picture, that the Marines actually did the shooting.

So Time Magazine in March came out with a story saying that 15 civilians had died, and that's when the investigation began.

WERTHEIMER: So who's doing this? Who's piecing together what happened and whether or not it was covered up?

Mr. BOWMAN: Well, there are two parallel investigations. One by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and the other by an Army two star general, who's looking at the reporting part of this and the command structure. Clearly the initial report was a lie. Now they're just trying to find out how far that lie went up the chain of command.

WERTHEIMER: Last month the battalion commander, a lieutenant colonel, was relieved of his position as well as two captains who were both company commanders. The Marine division commander said it was due to a lack of confidence in their leadership abilities. What does this mean? Does this point to the possibility of a unit that was out of control? Or maybe even the possibility that these people were involved in other incidents?

Mr. KENYON: Well, clearly, on the reporting side of this, the question is did these officers know that that report was a lie. So clearly they'll be looking into that as part of this investigation. There's no indication that these particular officers were on the ground at the time in Haditha so it probably looks more to the reporting side of this.

WERTHEIMER: The cover-up possibility.

Mr. KENYON: The possible cover-up, absolutely.

WERTHEIMER: And what about the possibility of other incidents? Do they think that this might be some kind of a rogue unit?

Mr. KENYON: Well, they don't know at this point. Again, perhaps they were confused, perhaps there was chaos and things got of control.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman. Thank you very much.

Mr. BOWMAN: Thank you.

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