The Pentagon has narrowed its investigation into allegations that U.S. Marines killed 24 civilians, including 11 women and children, in the Iraqi city of Haditha last November. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other senior military leaders received an update on the probe this week.
A government official familiar with the criminal investigation tells NPR it is centering on a Marine sergeant and a corporal. And there is a possibility that three other Marines, all lance corporals, could be implicated in the killings.
The Marines were members of a 12-man squad from Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, based at Camp Pendleton in California.
Gary Solis, a retired Marine officer and law professor, says Iraq poses a difficult problem for U.S. forces. Insurgents operate among civilians, who sometimes can be used as shields. But American troops are trained not to overreact and to be precise when they shoot.
"You have to distinguish between the shooter and the non-shooter, the combatant and the non-combatant," says Solis. And you may not lawfully target a non-combatant; for example, a woman or a child without a weapon.
On Nov. 19, the Marine squad rolled into Haditha, a town northwest of Baghdad, in a four-Humvee convoy. The convoy struck a roadside bomb, which killed one Marine and injured two others.
During the chaos, a taxi suddenly pulled up, carrying five Iraqi men. The government official says investigators will report that the Marine sergeant quickly ordered the unarmed Iraqis from the taxi and shot and killed them.
Solis says non-commissioned officers, like sergeants, and officers have a special role in combat operations.
The sergeant then led some of the Marines on a search of four houses. There were initial reports that shots were being fired. Additional civilians in the houses were killed by Marine gunfire.
The government official says it's uncertain whether any firefight with insurgents took place. Only in the fourth and final house was there evidence of a firefight with Marines. One Iraqi male fired his AK-47 assault rifle. He was cut down by the Marines.
The day of the incident, the Marines put out a statement saying 15 Iraqi civilians were killed, all by the roadside bomb. And they reported another eight insurgents were killed in a battle with Marines. Now, investigators realize that report was untrue.
Investigators have also learned that two separate groups of Marines showed up at the four houses shortly after the attack. One was a team collecting intelligence information. The other was a foot patrol.
The government official says the Marine intelligence team took digital photos of the scene and then deleted them; he says that's because the team found no intelligence information of value. Marines from the foot patrol also took pictures. They are now in the hands of investigators. The government official describes them as "gruesome."
But why didn't these two separate groups of Marines, aware of a large civilian death toll, realize something was wrong? Should they have reported it? Those are questions investigators are still trying to answer.
Rumsfeld and the joint chiefs of staff were briefed on the investigations earlier this week. And Pentagon sources say Rumsfeld had a question for the senior military officers: Are commanders are doing all they can to make sure American troops behave professionally?
Before heading to Iraq, the Marines are instructed on when they can shoot. And they also spend weeks training in mock Iraqi villages.
Gary Anderson, a retired Marine colonel who advises the Pentagon on the Iraqi insurgency, says Marines and soldiers work with Iraqi-American role players to get a sense of what it will be like in Iraq. And they stage practice runs on houses where there are both armed combatants and unarmed civilians.
The Pentagon is now bracing for the completion of the investigation. Any wrongdoing by Marines or the release of gruesome pictures could intensify an already explosive situation in Iraq.
Anderson says the key question is how this is resolved in the minds of the Iraqis themselves.
"If they think it was fairly resolved and fairly investigated that's important," he says.
The investigation into how the Haditha attack was reported up the chain could be finished as early as this week. The criminal investigation is expected to wrap up next month.