Did Marines Massacre Iraqi Civilians?

WASHINGTON D.C. (ABC News) May 26 —  Senior Pentagon officials are bracing for an investigation into the killing of 24 Iraqis last November in the town of Haditha. The officials tell ABC News the investigation will likely result in criminal charges that could range from dereliction of duty to murder.

As this unfolds, military officials say they fear “Haditha” will come to mean what “My Lai” — the massacre of Vietnamese civilians American troops in 1968 — meant for an earlier generation. The incident is still under investigation, but several senior military officials say at least seven Marines could face criminal charges.

Although the investigation is not complete, the Pentagon has already briefed key members of Congress on the details of the investigation. After a briefing, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee John Warner told reporters, “there are established facts that incidents of a very serious nature did take place.”

By the time the dust settled, at least 24 Iraqi civilians, most unarmed, lay dead.

  «« click on pic for video Iraqi girl witness
Haditha war crime?

ABC News has learned from sources close to the investigation that the ranking Marine in the group who entered the homes and is a focus of the investigation, is 25-year-old Sgt. Frank Wuterich.

The military issued a press release that day saying a roadside bomb killed one Marine and 15 civilians and that an additional 8 insurgents were killed in a firefight. It was not until February — when Time Magazine showed a US military spokesperson a videotape of the bloody aftermath taken by a Iraqi journalism student — that the military investigated the incident.

Military officials say Marine Corp photos taken immediately after the incident show many of the victims were shot at close range, in the head and chest, execution-style. One photo shows a mother and young child bent over on the floor as if in prayer, shot dead, said the officials who spoke to NBC News. One military official says it appears the civilians were deliberately killed by the Marines, who were outraged at the death of their fellow Marine. “This one is ugly.”

In a sign of how serious the Pentagon takes this, Marine Corps Commandant General Michael Hagee is traveling to Iraq to offer a stern reminder to fellow Marines. The Marines have distributed a copy of the speech General Hagee plans to give. “We do not employ force just for the sake of employing force,” General Hagee will say. “We use lethal force only when justified, proportional and, most importantly, lawful.”

"But I will not let myself be reduced to silence."

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