The U.S. Defense Department says photos that purportedly show Marines burning bodies of what appear to be dead Iraqi insurgents are "disturbing."
A Pentagon spokesman, Rear Admiral John Kirby, said Thursday that officials must let a Marine-led probe into the photos take its course before determining their authenticity.
"I can’t sit here today and tell you with great certainty, or confirm the veracity of the images, in other words the authenticity of them. But certainly they’re disturbing images. They’re not indicative regardless of the kind of conduct and professionalism that the men and women of this department espouse and live every day. And if they're proven to be accurate and authentic, we’ll then march down the road of what needs to be done from an accountability perspective," said Kirby.
The U.S. Marine Corps launched its investigation on Wednesday, several days after the photos were turned over to the Pentagon by the entertainment website TMZ.com.
TMZ, which posted eight of the photos, says it was told they were taken in the western Iraqi city of Fallujah, the scene of fierce fighting between U.S. forces and insurgents 10 years ago.
In the photos, a person in what looks like a Marine uniform appears to be pouring a flammable liquid on dead insurgents. Other photos show the bodies on fire. Another image shows a Marine kneeling near a corpse and looking into the camera.
U.S. defense officials say the images do not appear to constitute war crimes. But they say the Marines possibly violated military rules that prohibit the mishandling of remains and inappropriate photos on the battlefield.
Kirby said U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel wants the investigation into the images taken seriously, but that he is unaware if TMZ is cooperating with the probe.
"But he’s been very clear with the [U.S.] Navy department. He wants this taken seriously, he believes they are taking it seriously, and he expects them to keep him updated.”
TMZ says it has another 33 photos from the 2004 battle in Fallujah that are too graphic to show.
Fallujah was the target of two major assaults in which U.S. forces saw some of their heaviest fighting since the Vietnam War. The city, which lies in western Sunni-dominated Anbar province, was overrun recently by al-Qaida-linked militants.