The investigation into whether U.S. Marines killed 24 unarmed civilians -- many of them women and children -- in the Iraqi city of Haditha last November has broken the heart of a congressman, who wonders whether there was an attempted cover-up.
"Eighty percent of the Iraqis want us out of there," said Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., a decorated Marine veteran and prominent critic of U.S. policy in Iraq, on "Good Morning America." "Forty-seven percent say it's all right to kill Americans. Yet when we went in, they thought it was wonderful to topple Saddam Hussein. Now we've lost that war, and now it is time to redeploy." Murtha believes the United States can no longer win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people.
The first five victims in Haditha were unarmed Iraqi civilians, who were riding in a taxi near the Marine convoy soon after it was hit by an improvised explosive device, or IED, which killed a young Marine. The five Iraqis were said to be running away when the Marines shot them, although none of the Iraqis were armed.
The Sorrow of a Marine Veteran
The Marines are believed to have entered three houses. In the final house, they reportedly killed four adult brothers, after ordering the women in the house to leave. Time Magazine reported that at least one of the women tried to save her child's life by standing over her child and begging in English.
"It breaks my heart to think that Marines would do this," Murtha said. "Hopefully, this is an isolated incident. But we're supposed to be selling ideas of America, ideals of America, and we're losing that war. The reason we've lost the hearts and minds [is] these troops are under tremendous stress. Day after day these roadside bombs go off. They don't know who the enemy is. Then they kill innocent people."
According to various reports, anywhere from eight to 12 Marines are under investigation for the killings. They belonged to the outfit known as Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine regiment, based at California's Camp Pendleton.
Several of the Marines under investigation had served two tours of duty in Iraq, while one had served three. Congressional sources who were briefed by the Pentagon said that only two, three or four Marines are believed to be the shooters, and that the other Marines are believed to have looked on without doing anything. According to some military lawyers, several of the Marines involved could be charged with murder, which is punishable by death in military courts.
In addition to the criminal investigation into what happened and who, if anybody, should be charged, the Pentagon has launched a second investigation into whether there was a cover-up.
'I Can Still Smell the Blood'
Only hours after the Iraqi civilians were killed, a second team of Marines was sent to take the bodies to a local morgue. One of those Marines told the Los Angeles Times he is still haunted by what he saw.
"[The victims] ranged from little babies to adult males and females," Lance Cpl. Ryan Briones told the paper. "I can still smell the blood. This left something in my head and heart."
One of the bodies Briones said he picked up was a young girl who had been shot in the head. Briones' mother said he has nightmares about that.
"He goes, 'I can't sleep, Mom,'" Susie Briones said. "And he goes, 'I can't get her out of my ... I can't get her out of my head.' I said, 'Meijo, we need to sit down and let's pray. Because you didn't have anything to do with that,'"
Briones said her son called her from Iraq the day of the killings.
"He says, 'Mom, they -- you know -- something happened. Bad,'" she said. "And he -- and I said, 'What happened?' And he goes, 'It's, it's -- some people might get in trouble.'"
Allegations of a Cover-Up
Murtha said that an alleged atrocity of this caliber is something that cannot be excused.
"There's no question in my mind about what happened here," he said. "There was no gunfire. They killed four people in a taxi and then went into the rooms and killed. I don't know how many were involved in it, but it's something we cannot excuse. This is what the Marine Corps told me at the highest level. I know there was a cover-up someplace. They knew about this a few days afterward and there is no question that the chain of command tried to stifle the story. I can understand why, but that doesn't excuse it. These people have to be punished."
Murtha said high-level reports he received indicated that no one fired upon the Marines or that there was any military action against the U.S. forces after the initial explosion. Yet the deaths were not seriously investigated until March, because an early probe was stifled within days of the incident, he said.
"I will not excuse murder, and this is what happened," he said. "This investigation should have been over two or three weeks afterward, and it should have been made public and people should have been held responsible for it."