U.S. Moves Rapidly on Iraqi Death Investigations

The U.S. military continues to investigate three separate incidents in which American forces are accused of killing Iraqi civilians. In the wake of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, military officials are responding quickly to any allegations of wrongdoing.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

The U.S. military's version of a grand jury, called Article 32, is expected to convene next week and consider what's known about the April death of an Iraqi man in the town of Hamdania.

Earlier this week, the U.S. Marine Corps filed murder charges against seven Marines and a navy medical Corpsman in connection with that death. This is just one of several military investigations underway now into civilian deaths in Iraq.

We're joined now by NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman. Tom, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. TOM BOWMAN (NPR Pentagon Correspondent): It's good to be with you.

SIMON: Now we have article 32s that are planned for both the incident at Hamdania and another, Balad, what four soldiers from the 101st Airborne were charged with murder against three Iraqis in March. What will these grand juries, Article 32s, if you please, be looking to do in these cases?

Mr. BOWMAN: Well, they'll be looking to see if there's enough evidence to move forward with courts-martial. The first one is expected next week at Camp Pendleton, California. And that's where the seven Marines and the Navy medical Corpsman are being held.

The others would likely be held in Kuwait, where the four soldiers now from 101st Airborne are being held. But we have no sense of when the ones in Kuwait will be held.

SIMON: Certainly if you follow the news every day you notice that there are several of these cases that are coming to light. How are the cases coming to light as a generalization?

Mr. BOWMAN: Well, the Haditha case came to light back in March. That's the case where 24 Iraqis were killed, allegedly by the Marines. And Time magazine was tipped off by Iraqi human rights people and relatives of those killed in Haditha, which is a city northwest of Baghdad.

And in the Hamdania case, was investigated after a family member came forward. In that case, the Marines said that they shot and killed a suspected insurgent and that they found an AK-47 next to his body as well as shovel. So they said it looked like he was planting roadside bombs. And then a family member went to them and said, well, these Marines burst in then took him away and then shot him.

The final one with the soldiers at 101st, it was a soldier who blew the whistle on his comrades. And they actually threatened to kill him if he talked to investigators. And that's part of the charges. Those soldiers have also been charged with making a threat.

SIMON: What are defense lawyers saying in each of these cases?

Mr. BOWMAN: Well, in the Hamdania case, the lawyers are saying their clients did nothing wrong and that any statements made were coerced. Now, in the Haditha case - and that's, again, the case where 24 were allegedly killed by Marines - they're saying their clients were being shot at from four houses so they returned fire, they did nothing wrong.

They're also saying that they shot five men who jumped out of a taxicab at the scene and fled. And that in itself was considered a hostile act. The investigators, however, say they have photos taken by the military of the five men dead right next to the cab. So they're saying they were not running away.

SIMON: Does there seem to be a sense in the military that these prosecutions, and for that matter peremptory action on the part of the military, indicates that they're aware of the fact that these cases are receiving enormous publicity and the entire American presence in Iraq is, in a sense, on trial as much as anything else in these courtrooms?

Mr. BOWMAN: Absolutely. They learned a lot from Abu Ghraib, to quickly jump in on these cases and deal with them. And they're very worried about what impact this could have on how Americans are seen and viewed in Iraq. And also the effect on the insurgency, particularly when some of these photos get out.

I'm told that in the Haditha case, some of these photos of the dead - one investigator told me it's the worst thing he's ever seen.

SIMON: NPR's Tom Bowman at the Pentagon. Thank you very much.

Mr. BOWMAN: Thank you.

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