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Iraqi farmer's body exhumed for evidence

WASHINGTON—The body of a farmer who allegedly was shot by Marines in a deliberate, unwarranted killing in the western Iraqi town of al-Hamdania was en route to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware for forensic analysis, a military official said Wednesday.

Investigators with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service on Tuesday exhumed the body of Hashim Ibrahim Awad, an Iraqi farmer who was killed on April 26, and have shipped it to Dover, said the official, who declined to speak on the record because the investigation isn't complete.

Forensic investigators are "going to fast track" their analysis in an effort to wrap up the case, the official said. He said they would attempt to determine how far Awad was from the Marines when he was shot, the angle from which he was shot and whether any slugs found in his body came from Marine weapons.

Seven Marines and a Navy corpsman from 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment are being held in pre-trial confinement at Camp Pendleton, Calif., while investigators look into accusations that they deliberately killed Awad. Four others have been restricted to the base.

Islamic custom calls for a person to be buried before sundown on the day he or she dies. Marine officers didn't learn about Awad's killing until a May 1 meeting with tribal leaders. Since then, naval investigators have focused their inquiry on interviewing Marines connected with the case and villagers.

Awad's neighbors told Knight Ridder that the Marines had tried repeatedly to get Awad to become an informant and then killed him when he refused. They said the Marines planted a shovel and an AK-47 rifle next to his body and claimed that Awad had been killed after he was found planting a roadside bomb.

Another military official familiar with the investigation said the Marine squad went into al-Hamdania looking for a suspected insurgent. When they couldn't find him, they killed Awad instead, the official said.

"What's clear is that they killed a guy and knew they were going to do it when they started out on this effort," said the official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is incomplete.

Lt. Col. Sean Gibson, a Marine spokesman, said he couldn't confirm whether Awad's body had been exhumed.

Another group of about 12 Marines from 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment is under investigation for allegedly killing as many as 24 civilians, including women and children, on Nov. 19 in Haditha in western Iraq. No Marines have been jailed in connection with that case, according to Lt. Lawton King, a Marine spokesman at Camp Pendleton.

Marine Commandant Gen. Michael Hagee told a news conference on Wednesday that he was "gravely concerned" about allegations that his troops killed unarmed civilians in Iraq.

"If it turns out that an individual violated rules or regulations, he will be held accountable, regardless of grade or position," Hagee said. He declined to comment on any aspect of the two investigations.

Hagee's remarks were his first public comments since he returned from Iraq last week, where he spoke to Marines about the importance of maintaining their core values of "honor, courage and commitment" in the Iraq war. He also visited Marines at Camp Lejeune, N.C., and said he plans to travel soon to California, Hawaii and Japan to deliver the same message.

Hagee said the Marines would cooperate to make sure that the probes are completed as quickly as possible and that "no avenue of investigation is left undone."


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