Photographs taken by a Marine intelligence team have convinced investigators that a Marine unit killed as many as 24 unarmed Iraqis, some of them “execution-style,” in the insurgent stronghold of Haditha after a roadside bomb killed an American in November, officials close to the investigation said Friday.
The pictures are said to show wounds to the upper bodies of the victims, who included several women and six children. Some were shot in the head and some in the back, congressional and defense officials said.
One government official said the pictures showed that infantry Marines from Camp Pendleton “suffered a total breakdown in morality and leadership, with tragic results.”
The case may be the most serious incident of alleged war crimes in Iraq by U.S. troops. Marine officers have long been worried that Iraq’s deadly insurgency could prompt such a reaction by combat teams.
An investigation by an Army general into the Nov. 19 incident is to be delivered soon to the top operational commander in Iraq. A separate criminal investigation is also underway and could lead to charges ranging from dereliction of duty to murder.
Both investigations are centered on a dozen Marines from the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division. The battalion was on its third deployment to Iraq when the killings occurred.
Most of the fatal shots appear to have been fired by only a few of the Marines, possibly a four-man “fire team” led by a sergeant, said officials with knowledge of the investigation, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The same sergeant is suspected of filing a false report downplaying the number of Iraqis killed, saying they were killed by an insurgent’s bomb and that Marines entered the Iraqis’ homes in search of gunmen firing at them. All aspects of his account are contradicted by pictures, statements by Marines to investigators and an inspection of the houses involved, officials said.
Other Marines may face criminal charges for failing to stop the killings or for failing to make accurate reports.
Of the dead Iraqis, 19 were in three to four houses that Marines stormed, officials said. Five others were killed near a vehicle.
The intelligence team took the pictures shortly after the shooting stopped. Such teams are typically assigned to collect information on insurgents after firefights or other military engagements.
Investigators and top officers of the Camp Pendleton-based 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, which oversees Marine infantry, aviation and support units in Iraq, have viewed the pictures.
The incident began when a roadside bomb attached to a large propane canister exploded as Marines passed through Haditha, a town on the Euphrates River. Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas, who was driving a Humvee, was killed and two other Marines were wounded.
Marines quickly determined that the bomb was a “line-of-sight” explosive that would have required someone to detonate it. Marines and Iraqi forces searched houses and other structures in the narrow, dusty streets. Jets dropped 500-pound bombs and a drone aircraft circled overhead.
Time magazine, in a report published in March, quoted witnesses, including a 9-year-old girl, Eman Waleed, who said that she saw Marines kill her grandparents and that other adults in the house died shielding her and her 8-year-old brother, Abdul Rahman.
An elder in Haditha later went to Marine officials at the battalion’s headquarters to complain of wanton killings.
The Marines involved in the incident initially reported that they had become embroiled in a firefight with insurgents after the explosion. However, evidence that later emerged contradicted that version.
“There wasn’t a gunfight, there were no pockmarked walls,” a congressional aide said.
“The wounds indicated execution-style” shootings, said a Defense Department official who had been briefed on the contents of the photos.
The Marine Corps backed off its initial explanation, and the investigations were launched after Time published its account.
Some lawmakers are asking the Marine Corps why an investigation wasn’t launched earlier if the intelligence team’s pictures contradicted the squad’s account. The pictures from the intelligence team would probably have been given to the battalion intelligence officer, and they should have raised questions immediately, one congressional aide said.
The intelligence teams typically comprise Marine Corps reservists, often police officers or other law enforcement officials in civilian life who travel with active-duty battalions or regiments.
Such questions were put to Marine Commandant Gen. Michael Hagee during a series of individual briefings over the last week. One focus of the administrative investigation by Army Maj. Gen. Eldon Bargewell is to find out how high up the Marine Corps chain of command the misreporting went.
Military officials say they believe the delay in beginning the investigation was a result of the squad’s initial efforts to cover up what happened. Military and congressional sources said there was no indication that the members of the intelligence team did anything improper or delayed reporting their findings.
“They are the guys that probably provided the conclusive, demonstrative evidence that what happened wasn’t as others had described,” a congressional staffer said.
The Marine Corps apologized to the families of several of those killed and made payments to compensate them for their losses. The families have denied permission to have the bodies exhumed for investigation.
Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), a retired Marine colonel, said there was clearly an attempt to cover up the incident by those involved. But he said he did not think the Marine command was slow in investigating.
“There is no question that the Marines involved, those doing the shooting, they were busy in lying about it and covering it up -- there is no question about it,” Kline said. “But I am confident, as soon as the command learned there might be some truth to this, they started to pursue it vigorously. I don’t have any reason now to think there was any foot dragging.”
As Marines moved across the desert into Iraq on March 19, 2003, each Marine received a signed statement from then-Maj. Gen. James N. Mattis, commanding general of the 1st Marine Division, exhorting his troops to fight vigorously but to treat noncombatants with “decency
“Engage your brain before you engage your weapon,” he said.
As detailed in Bing West’s book “The March Up: Taking Baghdad With the 1st Marine Division,” Brig. Gen. John Kelly, assistant division commander, was concerned about instances of seemingly random firing by Marines, most of them untested in combat. Kelly is now the Marine Corps’ congressional liaison and has helped Hagee deliver briefings to legislators on the investigations into the Nov. 19 incident.
Hagee left for Iraq on Thursday to sternly remind Marines that harming noncombatants violates Marine policy and numerous laws governing warfare. He plans to give the same message to troops at Camp Pendleton and other Marine bases when he returns.
Haditha has been a particularly difficult area for the Marines. Officers have said they lack enough troops to do an adequate job of developing intelligence and then confronting insurgents.
A documentary shown this week on the A&E; Network detailed the frustrations of a company of Marine reservists who had 23 members killed and 36 wounded during a deployment last year in Haditha.
One Marine sergeant, in an interview after his unit had returned to Columbus, Ohio, remembered a raid in which he burst into a home and came close to killing two women and a teenage boy out of rage for the deaths of fellow Marines.
Sgt. Guy Zierk, interviewed in the documentary, “Combat Diary: The Marines of Lima Company,” said he knew at that point that he had been in Iraq too long.
Perry reported from San Diego and Barnes from Washington. Times staff writer Peter Spiegel in Washington contributed to this report.