WASHINGTON - A preliminary military inquiry found evidence that US Marines killed two dozen Iraqi civilians in an unprovoked attack in November, contradicting the troops' account, US officials said today.
President George W Bush said he was troubled by news stories on the November 19 killings of men, women and children in the town of Haditha, and a general at the Pentagon said the incident could complicate the job for the 130,000 US troops in Iraq.
"Allegations such as this, regardless of how they are borne out by the facts, can have an effect on the ability of US forces to continue to operate," Army Brig Gen Carter Ham, deputy director for regional operations for the military's Joint Staff, told a Pentagon briefing.
Forensic data from corpses showed victims with bullet wounds, despite earlier statements by Marines that civilians were killed by a roadside bomb that also claimed the life of a Marine from El Paso, Texas, Lance Cpl Miguel Terrazas, a defence official said.
"The forensics painted a different story than what the Marines had said," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.
The official said there were wounds that would not have been caused by an improvised explosive device. "Did someone shoot somebody just for the sake of taking him out?" the official said. "Bad things happened that day, and it appears Marines lied about it."
"I am troubled by the initial news stories," Bush said at the White House. "I am mindful there is a thorough investigation going on. If in fact laws were broken there will be punishment."
Residents of Haditha, 200 km northwest of Baghdad in an area that has seen much activity by Sunni Arab insurgents, have told Reuters that Marines rampaged through houses and shot civilians after their patrol was hit by the roadside bomb.
The incident could represent the worst-known case of misconduct by US troops in Iraq, and comes at a time when opinion polls show falling US public support for the 3-year-old war. Ham emphasised the importance of US troops having the support of the Iraqi people and government.
There are two ongoing military investigations.
A probe by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, responsible for cases involving Marines, might lead to charges including murder, officials said. A separate fact-finding inquiry involves whether Marines tried to cover up the true nature of the incident, officials said.
The defence official said the investigations should be completed in mid-June.
A preliminary inquiry was ordered in February only after Time magazine presented the US military with information casting doubt on the official military version of the incident -- that civilians had been killed along with the one Marine by a roadside bomb.
Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA, said he was "deeply disturbed" by the allegations, adding, "These accusations, if proven true, may rise to the level of war crimes."
The New York Times reported today that the initial investigation in February and March led by Army Col. Gregory Watt uncovered death certificates showing the civilians were shot mostly in the head and chest. The Times said Watt reviewed military payments totalling $38,000 to families of victims.
In an interview with CNN, the new Iraqi ambassador to the United States, Samir al-Sumaidaie, said there appeared to have been other unnecessary killings of civilians by Marines in Haditha, where some of his family lives.