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The American military is quietly working with Iraq's Prime Minister to exhume the bodies of Iraqis allegedly killed by U.S. soldiers and Marines, but the U.S. is not having much luck. Muslim tradition bars the disturbance of bodies after they're buried.

NPR's Tom Bowman reports that without such important forensic evidence, criminal investigators may have a hard time proving murder charges.

TOM BOWMAN reporting:

For weeks now, military investigators have been trying to exhume the bodies of 24 Iraqi civilians killed last fall in the town of Haditha, allegedly by a squad of Marines. A U.S. government official says that is the only thing standing in the way of completing the investigation. But surviving family members have so far refused to allow the bodies to be removed and examined.

Mr. IBRAHIM HOOPER (Counsel on American Islamic Relations): The tradition is that the body should remain intact, that there shouldn't be any kind of disturbance of either the body or the grave.

BOWMAN: Ibrahim Hooper is a spokesman for the Counsel on American Islamic Relations.

Mr. HOOPER: There are exceptions for necessity in terms of criminal investigations and these kinds of things.

BOWMAN: But of the five ongoing criminal investigations involving Marines and soldiers, a body has been exhumed in just one case. That involved the remains of Hashim Ibrahim Awad, who was killed in Hamdania in May, allegedly by American troops. His brother approved the removal.

Awad's body was flown to an American military mortuary in Delaware and a government official says an examination found that he was shot 14 times. That evidence is consistent with statements from witnesses and has strengthened the criminal case. Seven Marines and a Navy medical corpsman are charged with murder.

Mr. GREG LEE (Criminal Investigator, Army Reserves): If you don't have the benefit of looking at the body, then that makes it extremely difficult for the government to be able to substantiate their theory of what exactly happened.

BOWMAN: That's Greg Lee, a retired agent with the Drug Enforcement Agency who also is a criminal investigator in the Army Reserves.

Mr. LEE: When you don't have the biggest tools in your arsenal to do that, the prosecutor has to weigh whether or not there's a good chance that he could even secure a conviction.

BOWMAN: No charges have been filed yet in the Haditha case, but the official says Marine prosecutors are now weighing whether they can win a murder case without any evidence from these two dozen bodies. Prosecutors may be forced to file lesser charges, perhaps negligent homicide or involuntary manslaughter.

At the same time, Army investigators are facing the same problem in another case. A teenager was allegedly raped and murdered by American soldiers in the town of Mahmudiya in March. An uncle recently gave the go-ahead to remove and examine her body, but a local cleric said no. Gary Solis, a former Marine lawyer and a Georgetown law professor, says it's difficult to prove a murder case without that kind of forensic evidence, but it's not impossible.

Mr. GARY SOLIS (Georgetown University): It can be done, but it depends on whether or not there is other evidence present to present to the jury.

BOWMAN: The military does have other evidence in the Haditha case, such as statements from Marines and Iraqis, as well as photographs of the scene. Solis says even more important will be the ability of prosecutors to get one of the alleged participants to cooperate.

Mr. SOLIS: If they can get a witness, a participant in events, who is willing to provide testimony in exchange for immunity, that would go far toward providing the evidence that they would need to substitute, as it were, for the bodies.

BOWMAN: Military investigators expect to complete their Haditha report within the next several weeks, with or without any of the two dozen bodies. The prosecutors will decide whether to file charges. In the meantime, several Marines who are suspects in the killings are still on duty at Camp Pendleton, California.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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