SAN DIEGO – Marines from Camp Pendleton wantonly killed unarmed Iraqi civilians, including women and children, and then tried to cover up the slayings in the insurgent stronghold of Haditha, Iraq, military investigations have found.
Officials who have seen the findings of the investigations said criminal charges, including murder, were expected, which would make the Nov. 19 incident the most serious case of alleged U.S. war crimes in Iraq.
An administrative inquiry overseen by Army Maj. Gen. Eldon Bargewell found that several infantry Marines fatally shot as many as 24 Iraqis and that other Marines either failed to stop them or filed misleading or blatantly false reports.
The report concluded that a dozen Marines acted improperly in the wake of a roadside bomb explosion that killed a fellow Marine, Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas.
Looking for insurgents, the Marines entered several homes and began firing their weapons, according to the report.
In its initial statement to the news media, Marine officials said the Iraqi civilians were killed either by an insurgent bomb or by crossfire between Marines and insurgents.
But after Time magazine obtained pictures showing dead women and children and quoted Iraqis who said the attack was unprovoked, the Marine Corps backtracked on its explanation of the incident and called for an investigation.
The Marines, many of whom were on their third deployment to Iraq, are part of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Regiment, 1st Marine Division.
The battalion commander and two company commanders were relieved of duty last month because, a spokesman said, Maj. Gen. Richard Natonski, commanding general of the division, had lost confidence in their leadership.
The Naval Criminal Investigative Service, which conducted a separate investigation, is expected to call for criminal charges including murder, negligent homicide, dereliction of duty and filing a false report.
After the roadside bomb killed Terrazas, the Marines conducted a sweep of the area, a common military tactic. But instead of following the Geneva Convention rules about identifying combatants, the Marines killed Iraqis in homes and five sitting in a vehicle, reportedly without provocation, the investigation found.
Bargewell’s report is set to be given soon to Army Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the top operational commander in Baghdad. Chiarelli will make recommendations involving leadership, training and filing reports.
Compensation has already been paid to some of the families of the slain Iraqis.
Marine officials also confirmed Thursday that an investigation had been opened into an April 26 incident in which troops allegedly killed a civilian in the town of Hamandiya, west of Baghdad.
Amid the investigations, Marine Commandant Gen. Michael Hagee flew to Iraq on Thursday to talk to Marines and remind them of long-standing orders to protect Iraqi civilians and follow the Geneva Convention.
Hagee is emphasizing “the importance of our core values” and to remind troops about the laws of war, said a statement released by the Marine Corps.
Hagee planned to read to officers and enlisted personnel a statement reminding them: “We must regulate force and violence, we only damage property that must be damaged and we protect the noncombatants we find on the battlefield.”
Hagee last week briefed key congressional leaders on the upcoming report.
One of those, Rep. John P. Murtha, D-Pa., a retired Marine colonel, said later that Marines “killed innocent civilians in cold blood.”
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, held a news conference last Friday to plead with reporters, politicians and the public not to judge U.S. troops by the action “of one squad, in one city, on one morning.”
The Marines have had more than 700 personnel killed in Iraq. But in his statement, Hagee says Marines should overcome the tendency “of becoming indifferent to the loss of a human life” in their dealings with Iraqi civilians.