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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
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And I'm Melissa Block.
The Pentagon is investigating an alleged rampage by U.S. Marines in Iraq that may have left as many as two dozen unarmed civilians dead. The numbers are far higher than had previously been reported, and the incident has shaken the Marine hierarchy.
NPR's Tom Bowman reports.
TOM BOWMAN reporting:
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. Twenty-four civilians died in a hail of gunfire, including 11 women and children.
The initial reports of the incident in Haditha said a roadside bomb blew up one Marine and 15 Iraqi civilians. According to a government official, the investigation has now turned that story upside down, revealing a much more disturbing chain of events. He says it all started when four Marine Humvees entered Haditha.
A roadside bomb did explode, but it killed a Marine and wounded two others. The Marines jumped out and set up a defensive posture. Suddenly, a taxi pulled up with five Iraqi males. They were ordered out by Marines. They were all unarmed and they were all killed. The Marines quickly began a search of four houses. Most of the Iraqi civilians killed were inside their houses. According to the government officials familiar with the investigation, only in that final house did Marines find an Iraqi male with an assault rifle. He too was killed.
Representative JACK MURTHA (Democrat, Pennsylvania): Our troops overreacted because of the pressure on them and they killed innocent civilians in cold blood. And that's what the report is going to tell.
BOWMAN: That's Congressman Jack Murtha, who says this very serious incident shows how the long deployments and a stubborn insurgency are affecting American Marines and soldiers. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would only say that the investigation into what happened at Haditha continues.
Mr. DONALD RUMSFELD (Secretary, Department of Defense): Needless to say, we have to take seriously allegations of that type. And they're under investigation.
BOWMAN: The government official says the investigative file includes photos and videotape of the dead taken inside the four houses. Some 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 out of Camp Pendleton, 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 November 19. That day, the Marines issued a statement saying a roadside bomb killed one Marine and 15 Iraqi civilians. And the Marines also 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 who reported up that lie 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.” John Sifton of Human Rights Watch is alarmed by the new reports.
Mr. JOHN SIFTON (Human Rights Watch): This incident may prove to be the worst single reported event of abuse in Iraq that's been reported so far.
BOWMAN: 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. Again, Congressman Murtha.
Representative MURTHA: It's much worse than reported in Time magazine. There was no firefight.
BOWMAN: Following the Time report, Marine General Richard Zilmer, Commander of Marines in western Iraq, called in the Naval Criminal Investigative Service to investigate the Haditha attacks. The investigation, which is due out next month, will just lay out the facts. It will be up to the Commander of the First Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Pendleton to decide on criminal proceedings. Rumsfeld, in an interview with Fox News, was asked about parallels with what happened in Haditha and the Mi Lai massacre in Vietnam.
Mr. RUMSFELD: It would be premature to characterize --
Unidentified Man: It would be. I just said if. It's a huge if. But that will impact on the whole war effort.
Mr. RUMSFELD: Time will tell.
BOWMAN: Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.
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