Two American news reports say an investigation into the deaths of at least 15 Iraqi civilians in an incident last November is expected to conclude that U.S. Marines killed the people.
The reports by The New York Times and The Associated Press quote unnamed officials as saying the investigation is moving toward a conclusion that will say a small group of Marines killed the civilians without justification. Officials have said that, if wrongdoing is found, the perpetrators will be punished.
But the officials, including Pentagon Press Secretary Eric Ruff, will not comment, on the record, on the substance of the investigation because it has not yet been completed.
"Our posture on this is, this is an ongoing investigation," he said. "And we're just not going to comment on what's being put out there. We'll let the investigation run its course. And then, when the facts are known, then we'll address whatever those facts are at that time."
The spokesman says he believes the investigation is nearing its end, but he does not think any announcement is imminent.
Still, on Thursday, after being briefed on the investigation, Senator John Warner, said "there have been facts substantiated to underpin" the allegation that the Marines killed the civilians without justification.
In the incident last November in the Iraqi town of Haditha, a Marine was killed by a roadside bomb. The multinational command initially reported that the civilians had been killed in the same explosion. Later, the military said the civilians died in the crossfire of a gun battle between the Marines and insurgents. But local residents charge that the Marines killed the civilians while searching the area to try to find the terrorists who planted the bomb. And some reports put the number of civilian dead at as many as 24, rather than the 15 the military has reported.
In addition, this week, the command in Iraq announced an investigation of another incident involving Marines. In this incident, Marines are alleged to have killed one Iraqi civilian near the town of Hamandiyah last month. That investigation is just beginning.
Although neither set of allegations has been proved, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Michael Hagee, traveled to Iraq Thursday to speak to his troops about values. According to a statement issued by his office, the general will remind the Marines to use minimal force and to maintain "uncompromising personal integrity" even in the heat of battle.
Speaking via satellite from Baghdad to reporters at the Pentagon Friday, U.S. Army Colonel Michael Beech said the controversy surrounding the Marines is not affecting his Combat Brigade Team, and he has not felt the need to address the issue with his troops.
"Our soldiers are provided with a wide range of equipping and tactics, techniques and procedures, in order to ensure they are able to defend themselves, while at the same time protecting innocent civilians' lives," said Mr. Beech.
Officials stress that the vast majority of the U.S. troops serving in dangerous areas around the world live up to the high standard of conduct the military demands.