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The available evidence does not provide conclusive proof that the Marines deliberately killed innocents in Haditha. But the accounts of human-rights groups that investigated the incident and survivors and local officials who spoke to TIME do raise questions about whether the extent of force used by the Marines was justified--and whether the Marines were initially candid about what took place. Dr. Wahid, director of the local hospital in Haditha, who asked that his family name be withheld because, he says, he fears reprisals by U.S. troops, says the Marines brought 24 bodies to his hospital around midnight on Nov. 19. Wahid says the Marines claimed the victims had been killed by shrapnel from the roadside bomb. "But it was obvious to us that there were no organs slashed by shrapnel," Wahid says. "The bullet wounds were very apparent. Most of the victims were shot in the chest and the head--from close range."
A day after the incident, a Haditha journalism student videotaped the scene at the local morgue and at the homes where the killings had occurred. The video was obtained by the Hammurabi Human Rights Group, and has been shared with TIME. The tape makes for grisly viewing. It shows that many of the victims, especially the women and children, were still in their nightclothes when they died. The scenes from inside the houses show that the walls and ceilings are pockmarked with shrapnel and bullet holes as well as the telltale spray of blood. But the video does not reveal the presence of any bullet holes on the outside of the houses, which may cast doubt on the Marines' contention that after the IED exploded, the Marines and the insurgents engaged in a fierce gunfight.
There are also questions about why the military took so long to investigate the details of the Haditha incident. Soon after the killings, the mayor of Haditha, Emad Jawad Hamza, led an angry delegation of elders up to the Marine camp beside a dam on the Euphrates River. Hamza says, "The captain admitted that his men had made a mistake. He said that his men thought there were terrorists near the houses, and he didn't give any other reason."
But the military stood by its initial contention that the Iraqis had been killed by an insurgent bomb until January when TIME gave a copy of the video and witnesses' testimony to Colonel Barry Johnson, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad. After reviewing the evidence, Johnson passed it on to the military command, suggesting that the events of Haditha be given "a full and formal investigation." In February an infantry colonel went to Haditha for a weeklong probe in which he interviewed Marines, survivors and doctors at the morgue, according to military officials close to the investigation. The probe concluded that the civilians were in fact killed by Marines and not by an insurgent's bomb and that no insurgents appeared to be in the first two houses raided by the Marines. The probe found, however, that the deaths were the result of "collateral damage" rather than malicious intent by the Marines, investigators say.