WASHINGTON - A military investigation into the deaths of two dozen Iraqis last November is expected to find that a small number of marines in western Iraq carried out extensive, unprovoked killings of civilians, Congressional, military and Pentagon officials said Thursday.
Two lawyers involved in discussions about individual marines' defenses said they thought the investigation could result in charges of murder, a capital offense. That possibility and the emerging details of the killings have raised fears that the incident could be the gravest case involving misconduct by American ground forces in Iraq.
Officials briefed on preliminary results of the inquiry said the civilians killed at Haditha, a lawless, insurgent-plagued city deep in Sunni-dominated Anbar Province, did not die from a makeshift bomb, as the military first reported, or in cross-fire between marines and attackers, as was later announced. A separate inquiry has begun to find whether the events were deliberately covered up.
Evidence indicates that the civilians were killed during a sustained sweep by a small group of marines that lasted three to five hours and included shootings of five men standing near a taxi at a checkpoint, and killings inside at least two homes that included women and children, officials said.
That evidence, described by Congressional, Pentagon and military officials briefed on the inquiry, suggested to one Congressional official that the killings were "methodical in nature."
Congressional and military officials say the Naval Criminal Investigative Service inquiry is focusing on the actions of a Marine Corps staff sergeant serving as squad leader at the time, but that Marine officials have told members of Congress that up to a dozen other marines in the unit are also under investigation. Officials briefed on the inquiry said that most of the bullets that killed the civilians were now thought to have been "fired by a couple of rifles," as one of them put it.
The killings were first reported by Time magazine in March, based on accounts from survivors and human rights groups, and members of Congress have spoken publicly about the episode in recent days. But the new accounts from Congressional, military and Pentagon officials added significant new details to the picture. All of those who discussed the case had to be granted anonymity before they would talk about the findings emerging from the investigation.
An image from videotape taken shortly after a fatal raid in Haditha, Iraq. Residents there said several marines carried out unprovoked killings. (Hammurabi Human Rights Group, via Associated Press)
A second, parallel inquiry was ordered by the second-ranking general in Iraq to examine whether any marines on the ground at Haditha, or any of their superior officers, tried to cover up the killings by filing false reports up the chain of command. That inquiry, conducted by an Army officer assigned to the Multinational Corps headquarters in Iraq, is expected to report its findings in coming days.
In an unusual sign of high-level concern, the commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Michael W. Hagee, flew from Washington to Iraq on Thursday to give a series of speeches to his forces re-emphasizing compliance with international laws of armed conflict, the Geneva Conventions and the American military's own rules of engagement.
"Recent serious allegations concerning actions of marines in combat have caused me concern," General Hagee said in a statement issued upon his departure. The statement did not mention any specific incident.
The first official report from the military, issued on Nov. 20, said that "a U.S. marine and 15 Iraqi civilians were killed yesterday from the blast of a roadside bomb" and that "immediately following the bombing, gunmen attacked the convoy with small-arms fire."
Military investigators have since uncovered a far different set of facts from what was first reported, partly aided by marines who are cooperating with the inquiry and partly guided by reports filed by a separate unit that arrived to gather intelligence and document the attack; those reports contradicted the original version of the marines, Pentagon officials said.
One senior Defense Department official who has been briefed on the initial findings, when asked how many of the 24 dead Iraqis were killed by the improvised bomb as initially reported, paused and said, "Zero."
While Haditha was rife with violence and gunfire that day, the marines, who were assigned to the Third Battalion, First Marines, and are now back at Camp Pendleton, Calif., "never took what would constitute hostile fire of a seriously threatening nature," one Pentagon official said.
Women and children were among those killed, as well as five men who had been traveling in a taxi near the bomb, which killed Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas of El Paso.
Although investigators are still piecing together the string of deaths, Congressional and Pentagon officials said the five men in the taxi either were pulled out or got out at a Marine checkpoint and were shot.
The deaths of those in the taxi, and inside two nearby houses, were not the result of a quick and violent firefight, according to officials who had been briefed on the inquiry.
"This was not a burst of fire, but a sustained operation over several hours, maybe five hours," one official said. Forensic evidence gathered from the houses where Iraqi civilians died is also said to contradict reports that the marines had to overcome hostile fire to storm the homes.
Members of the House and Senate briefed on the Haditha shootings by senior Marine officers, including General Hagee and Brig. Gen. John F. Kelly, the Marine legislative liaison, voiced concerns Thursday about the seriousness of the accusations.
Representative John Kline, a Minnesota Republican who is a retired Marine colonel, said that the allegations indicated that "this was not an accident. This was direct fire by marines at civilians." He added, "This was not an immediate response to an attack. This would be an atrocity."
The deaths, and the role of the marines in those deaths, is being viewed with such alarm that senior Marine Corps officers briefed members of Congress last week and again on Wednesday and Thursday.
The briefings were in part an effort to prevent the kind of angry explosion from Capitol Hill that followed news of detainee abuse by American military jailers at Abu Ghraib prison, which had been quietly under investigation for months before the details of the abuse were leaked to the news media. "If the accounts as they have been alleged are true, the Haditha incident is likely the most serious war crime that has been reported in Iraq since the beginning of the war," said John Sifton, of Human Rights Watch. "Here we have two dozen civilians being killed — apparently intentionally. This isn't a gray area. This is a massacre."
Three Marine officers — the battalion commander and two company commanders in Haditha at the time — have been relieved of duty, although official statements have declined to link that action to the investigation.
Senator John W. Warner, a Virginia Republican who heads the Armed Services Committee, said he expected senators would review investigators' evidence, including photographs by military photographers that Mr. Warner said were "taken as a matter of routine in Iraq on operations of this nature when there's loss of life."
Lawyers who have been in conversations with the marines under investigation stressed the chaotic situation in Haditha at the time of the killings. And they expect that the defense will stress that insurgents often hide among civilians, that Haditha on the day of the shootings was suffering a wave of fluid insurgent attacks and that the marines responded to high levels of hostile action aimed at them.
Much of the area around Haditha is controlled by Sunni Arab insurgents who have made the city one of the deadliest in Iraq for American troops. On Aug. 1, three months before the massacre, insurgents ambushed and killed six Marine snipers moving through Haditha on foot. Insurgents released a video after the ambush that appeared to show the attack, and the mangled and burned body of a dead serviceman. Then, two days later, 14 marines were killed when their armored vehicle was destroyed by a roadside bomb near the southern edge of the city.
The Marines also disclosed this week that a preliminary inquiry had found "sufficient information" to recommend a criminal probe into the killing of an Iraqi civilian on April 26 near Hamandiyah, a village west of Baghdad.
Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt reported from Washington for this article, and Richard A. Oppel Jr. from Baghdad, Iraq.
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company