The outfit known as Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, wasn't new to Iraq last year when it moved into Haditha, a Euphrates River farming town about 150 miles northwest of Baghdad. Several members of the unit were on their second tour of Iraq; one was on his third. The men in Kilo Company were veterans of ferocious house-to-house fighting in Fallujah. Their combat experience seemed to prepare them for the ordeal of serving in an insurgent stronghold like Haditha, the kind of place where the enemy attacks U.S. troops from the cover of mosques, schools and homes and uses civilians as shields, complicating Marine engagement rules to shoot only when threatened. In Haditha, says a Marine who has been there twice, "you can't tell a bad guy until he shoots you."
But one morning last November, some members of Kilo Company apparently didn't attempt to distinguish between enemies and innocents. Instead, they seem to have gone on the worst rampage by U.S. service members in the Iraq war, killing as many as 24 civilians in cold blood. The details of what happened in Haditha were first disclosed in March by TIME's Tim McGirk and Aparisim Ghosh, and their reporting prompted the military to launch an inquiry into the civilian deaths. The darkest suspicions about the killings were confirmed last week, when members of Congress who were briefed on the two ongoing military investigations disclosed that at least some members of a Marine unit may soon be charged in connection with the deaths of the Iraqis--and that the charges may include murder, which carries the death penalty. "This was a small number of Marines who fired directly on civilians and killed them," said Representative John Kline, a Minnesota Republican and former Marine who was briefed two weeks ago by Marine Corps officials. "This is going to be an ugly story."
With the U.S. struggling to hold on to public support for the war and no end to the insurgency in sight, the prospect of possible indictments has induced an aching dread among military and government officials. As the military launched another probe--into the April 26 killing of an Iraqi civilian by Marines--General Michael Hagee, commandant of the Marine Corps, headed to Iraq to address Marines on the growing crisis. Marine Corps public-affairs director Brigadier General Mary Ann Krusa-Dossin says the allegations "have caused serious concern at the highest levels" of the corps.
A military source in Iraq told TIME that investigators have obtained two sets of photos from Haditha. The first is after-action photos taken by the military as part of the routine procedure that follows any such event. Submitted in the official report on the fighting, the photos do not show any bodies. Investigators have also discovered a second, more damning set of photos, taken by Marines of the Kilo Company immediately after the shootings. The source says it isn't clear if these photos were held back from the after-action report or were personal snapshots taken by the Marines. The source says a Marine e-mailed at least one photo to a friend in the U.S.