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Almost as damaging as the alleged massacre may be evidence that the unit's members and their superiors conspired to cover it up. "There's no doubt that the Marines allegedly involved in doing this--they lied about it," says Kline. "They certainly tried to cover it up." Three Marine officers, including the company commander and battalion commander, have been relieved of duty in part for actions related to the deaths in Haditha. A lawmaker who has been briefed on the matter says the investigations may implicate other senior officers.
In hindsight, it seems remarkable that the Marines were able to conceal such a horrific event for so long. It began, as so many things in Iraq do, with an explosion. At about 7:15 in the morning on Nov. 19, a string of four humvees were on routine patrol in a residential area when a white taxicab approached from the opposite end of the street. The Marines made hand and arm signals for the taxi to stop. But as the taxi halted near the first humvee, a bomb under the fourth humvee exploded, killing its driver--Lance Corporal Miguel (T.J.) Terrazas, 20, of El Paso, Texas--wounding two of his comrades and shattering windows 150 yards away. Marines said the convoy almost immediately began to take fire from several houses on either side of the road. Locals dispute that, claiming the only firing after the explosion was done by the Marines. Suspecting that the four students in the taxi either triggered the bomb or were acting as spotters, the Marines ordered the men and the driver, who by then had exited the taxi, to lie on the ground. Instead, they ran, and the Marines shot and killed them.
The military's initial report stated that Terrazas and 15 civilians were killed in a roadside blast and that shortly afterward, the Marines came under attack and returned fire, killing eight insurgents. But as TIME reported in March on the basis of interviews with 28 individuals, including military officials, the families of the victims, human-rights investigators and local doctors, much of that account is dubious. Members of Congress, as well as military sources, have confirmed the critical details of TIME's initial report--that after gunning down the five fleeing the taxi, a few members of Kilo Company moved through four homes along nearby streets, killing 19 men, women and children. The Marines contend they took small-arms fire from at least one house, but as TIME's story detailed in March, only one of the 19 victims was found with a weapon.