President Bush, top U.S. military officials and the new government of Iraq have ordered investigations into an alleged massacre of Iraqi civilians by U.S. Marines in November. If the investigations reveal a cover-up, troops responsible for the killing may not be the only ones to face charges.
At least 15 and perhaps as many as 24 innocent Iraqis were killed in Haditha, allegedly at the hands of U.S. Marines distraught over the loss of a fellow marine, Lance Corporal Miguel Terrazas, who died in an insurgent attack on their convoy.
The Iraqi deaths are said to include children as well as women who tried to shield them. Twelve-year-old Safa Younis survived by pretending to be dead.
"The Americans knocked on the door. My father went to open it,” Younis said. “They shot him dead from behind the door, and then they shot him after they opened the door."
President Bush said both he and the Marine Corps are troubled by the allegations.
"The Marine Corps is full of men and women who are honorable people, who understand rules of war,” Bush said. “And if, in fact, these allegations are true, the Marine Corps will work hard to make sure that that culture -- that proud culture will be reinforced, and that those who violated the law -- if they did -- will be punished."
The commandant of the Marine Corps, General Michael Hagee, who was in Kuwait before the start of the Iraq War, visited his troops again in May to issue an unusual reminder that lethal force must be "justified, proportional and, most importantly, lawful."
The general also cautioned that troops numbed by the effects of combat risk becoming indifferent to the loss of life.
Anthony Cordesman, a military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C. think tank, says an indifferent soldier is an incompetent warrior whose misdeeds provoke the enemy.
"Every time a soldier loses control in this form, he or she ends up killing other Americans indirectly, just as certainly as if they were traitors or members of the insurgency," Cordesman said.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki says he is losing patience with what he called American "excuses" for the Haditha killings. Maliki told the Reuters news agency that he also plans to launch an Iraqi investigation into the matter.
Anthony Cordesman agreed that this is important. "This government has to be able to stand on its own. It has to show it is truly sovereign,” he said.
“If the United States makes mistakes, the government has to be in a position to freely criticize them,” he said. “And if we make mistakes, we have to show we are going to hold U.S. troops fully responsible."
The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace, said there are two military investigations into the killings.
"One is to find out what happened,” Pace said. “The other is to find out, why did it take us so long to find out what happened?"
It is not clear when senior military officials learned about the incident, or what they did about it. If investigations reveal that senior officials knew early on, but failed to pursue justice, those officials could also face criminal charges. White House spokesman Tony Snow said President Bush first heard about the allegations in February.