WASHINGTON—Naval investigators are looking into whether Marines intentionally killed 15 Iraqi civilians—four of them women and five of them children—during fighting last November, defense officials said Friday.
One official said it's unclear whether the Marines killed the civilians accidentally or whether they fired indiscriminately. It's also unclear whether all the civilians died in the same house or in separate locations. Among the dead was a 15-year-old girl, an official said.
The investigation will examine how the Marines determined hostile intent during the firefight and whether they attempted to positively identify their targets before firing, the official said.
Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the ground commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq, said he ordered the investigation to determine what happened during a firefight on Nov. 19, 2005, after insurgents exploded a bomb near a Marine convoy in the insurgent stronghold of Haditha, in western Iraq.
A U.S. military press release issued the next day said that one Marine and 15 Iraqi civilians died in the blast and that eight insurgents were killed in an ensuing firefight.
Chiarelli said he ordered an initial fact-finding investigation on Feb. 14 after a news reporter in Iraq raised allegations of possible wrongdoing by the Marines.
Chiarelli said he ordered the second investigation on March 9. That was after the preliminary inquiry found that the civilians didn't die in the blast, but were killed in the firefight that followed, according to the two defense officials familiar with the investigation.
"We take these allegations of potential misconduct seriously, and they will be thoroughly investigated," Chiarelli said, speaking from Iraq by teleconference to reporters at the Pentagon.
The Navy's Criminal Investigative Service is conducting the probe.
The Navy's investigation will seek to answer whether the Marines killed the civilians accidentally or whether the killings were deliberate, said one of the defense officials. The two officials asked not to be named because they weren't authorized to comment on specifics of the case.
CNN reported the first details of the investigation late Thursday.
Marines from the 2nd Marine Division's Regimental Combat Team 2 were traveling in a four-Humvee convoy through Haditha on Nov. 19 when an improvised explosive device went off, according to one of the officials. Lance Cpl. Miguel Tarrazas, 20, of El Paso, Texas, was killed in the blast.
The explosion was the first of five blasts and coordinated small-arms attacks that hit the Marines over the next five hours. They stopped only after U.S. warplanes dropped two bombs on suspected insurgents, an official said. Haditha, which is about 140 miles northwest of Baghdad, is an insurgent stronghold and has been the scene of frequent attacks on U.S. troops in the past three years.
After the initial blast, a gun battle developed in which a squad of 12 to 15 Marines pursued the insurgents from house to house, with civilians inside apparently caught in the crossfire.
The incident isn't the first time that U.S. forces have been accused of killing unarmed civilians in Iraq. During the siege of the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah in November 2004, a television cameraman recorded a Marine shooting and killing an unarmed Iraqi who'd been wounded during the fierce fighting. The Marine was later cleared of any wrongdoing.
The two officials who asked not to be identified said that the squad that's under investigation in the present case is from the same unit, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, that was involved in the 2004 incident.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.