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U.S. military investigating deaths of Iraqis killed in firefight

WASHINGTON _The military has launched an investigation into whether U.S. Marines committed a crime when they shot and killed 15 civilians during a firefight after insurgents attacked their convoy last November in the Iraqi town of Haditha, a U.S. military official in Baghdad said Thursday.

It will be the second investigation into the incident. Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq, ordered an initial fact-finding investigation after a news reporter told U.S. officials that the Marines may have wrongly killed the civilians, the official said.

The preliminary results indicated that further investigation was warranted, and the case was referred to the Navy's Criminal Investigative Service, the official said. The official, who wasn't authorized to speak on the record about details of the incident, asked not to be identified.

The investigation will center on whether a squad of 12 to 15 Marines with the 2nd Marine Division's Regimental Combat Team 2 from Camp Lejeune, N.C., responded appropriately to the insurgent attack "and whether proper procedures were followed," the official said.

The investigation was first reported late Thursday by CNN.

U.S. military officials in Baghdad initially reported the incident on Nov. 20, saying that one Marine, later identified as Lance Cpl. Miguel Tarrazas, 20, of El Paso, Texas, and 15 civilians were killed by a bomb on Nov. 19 when insurgents attacked a U.S. convoy in Haditha, on the Euphrates River about 140 miles northwest of Baghdad. The military reported that eight insurgents were killed in the ensuing firefight.

Haditha has been the site of frequent clashes between U.S. Marines and insurgents. In August, 14 Marines died there when their amphibious assault vehicle was destroyed by an improvised explosive device.

The U.S. military official described the November incident as a coordinated attack that included improvised explosives and small-arms fire from several locations. The official said it was common for insurgents to fight from civilian homes and structures and place non-combatants in the line of fire.

But Iraqis frequently have accused U.S. forces of opening fire indiscriminately after they're attacked.

The role of the news reporter in the initial investigation was unclear. Reporters often travel with U.S. units as they patrol and are frequent witnesses to combat. In November 2004, a television reporter recorded a Marine killing a wounded insurgent.

It's unclear what charges the Marines might face or when the investigation will be completed.

"The military takes allegations of this nature very seriously, and we are committed to finding the facts surrounding the engagement," said Lt. Col. Michelle Martin-Hing, a spokeswoman for Multi-National Force-Iraq in Baghdad.


(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.