BAGHDAD, Iraq—The Iraqi government demanded Thursday that U.S. forces apologize for the deaths of 24 civilians whom American Marines killed in the town of Haditha last fall and said it would begin talks with the United States to establish rules that would limit the way foreign troops conduct raids and detain Iraqi citizens.
"We cannot forgive the violations of the dignity of the Iraqi people," Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said.
U.S. troops operate in Iraq without any Iraqi government restrictions under an order that the American-led occupation government issued in 2004, and it was unclear whether U.S. officials would be willing to alter it. That order by the Coalition Provisional Authority provided that all coalition forces, members of the authority and foreign liaisons "shall be immune from Iraqi legal process."
American officials didn't directly address the issue Thursday. They did, however, announce that U.S. forces in Iraq would undergo extensive new 30-day training in battlefield behavior intended to avoid the unnecessary deaths of civilians.
"As military professionals, it is important that we take time to reflect on the values that separate us from our enemies," said Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the commander of multinational forces in Iraq. "The challenge for us is to make sure the actions of a few do not tarnish the good work of the many."
The training was prompted by the killings Nov. 19 at Haditha, which are under investigation. Residents there have accused American Marines of going on a rampage, shooting people in their homes, including women and children, after a roadside bomb killed a Marine.
The results of that investigation haven't been released officially, but members of Congress who've been briefed have said they reveal unwarranted killings. A second investigation has turned up evidence that some Marines may have attempted to cover up what took place, the members of Congress indicated.
In Washington, President Bush acknowledged the controversy Thursday, saying that "obviously there was an incident that took place in Iraq."
"This is just a reminder for troops in Iraq, or throughout our military, that there are high standards expected of them and that there are strong rules of engagement," Bush said. "Obviously, the allegations are very troubling for me and equally troubling for our military, especially the Marine Corps."
The president promised that the investigation's results would be made public. "One of the things that happens in a transparent society like ours is that there is—there will be a full and complete investigation," he said. "The world will see the full and complete investigation."
In Iraq, a-Maliki's Cabinet announced that it too would investigate Haditha. In a statement, the Cabinet said the killings there were only the latest of "repeated incidents" in which U.S. troops had killed Iraqi civilians.
How far the Iraqi government will press the United States on the issue remains to be seen, however. Scores, if not hundreds, of Iraqi civilians have died at the hands of American troops since U.S. forces entered Iraq in March 2003.
American officials have said the vast majority of those deaths were justifiable, if regrettable, instances in which U.S. soldiers, fearing suicide bombers, were forced to make split-second decisions to save their own lives. Others were the result of insurgents taking shelter near civilians, who died when American forces responded to gunfire.
The frequent killings are the subject of much bitterness among Iraqis, many of whom consider the Americans as threatening as the insurgents and militias who are responsible for most Iraqi deaths.
Al-Maliki has said he'll aggressively address the country's pervasive security problems, calling them a priority. On Wednesday, he announced a month-long state of emergency in the southern port city of Basra, the country's second-largest city, and said he'd dispatch the Iraqi army to disarm feuding militias.
Some analysts said the al-Maliki government would have little choice but to confront the United States on the subject if it hoped to address the country's long-standing security problems.
Al-Maliki "cannot hold the Americans to one law and the insurgents to another," said Judith Yaphe, an Iraq specialist at the National Defense University in Washington. "Otherwise he will lose credibility."
The provisional government that ruled until al-Maliki was sworn in two weeks ago had announced several times that it was forming committees that would get to the bottom of accusations of violence, but it never released any findings.
Al-Maliki, who has a reputation as a Shiite partisan, may see American-caused violence as a rallying point on which rival Sunni and Shiite Muslim factions can agree as he tries to gain control of the country.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.