When a Congressman makes the extraordinary claim that U.S. troops killed innocent civilians "in cold blood," Washington takes notice. And when he's a former Marine and decorated Vietnam vet, the assertion carries special weight. Pennsylvania Democrat John Murtha, who backed going to war in 2002 but has become a vocal critic of the Bush Administration's handling of Iraq, last week said U.S. Marines were guilty of murdering civilians in the Iraqi town of Haditha last November--an event that was uncovered by TIME in March.
Murtha made his claims after being briefed on an ongoing U.S. military investigation sparked by TIME's story, which detailed allegations that 15 Iraqis at Haditha might have been shot by Marines--not killed by a bomb, as the Marines had said. "It's much worse than was reported," said Murtha, the top Democrat on the House Defense Subcommittee. "There was no firefight. There was no [improvised explosive device] that killed those innocent people." Murtha claimed that "about twice as many" Iraqis were killed as had been reported. Other sources say investigators have found that up to two dozen Iraqis died, including eight men who had earlier been described by military sources in Iraq as enemy combatants. As TIME reported earlier, eyewitnesses cast doubt on the military's claim, saying four of the Iraqis had been pushed into a closet, then shot. Military sources deny the victims had been in a closet and said one had had a gun while another had "seemed" to be reaching for one.
The military investigation is expected to conclude in the next few weeks. Pentagon sources say at least three Marines are likely to face criminal charges, including homicide. Three officers have already been removed from their posts--in part for actions related to Haditha--and may be punished further. An additional nine Marines at the scene that day, who were led by a staff sergeant, could be charged with lesser violations.