WASHINGTON - US President George W. Bush today pledged a thorough investigation into the killing of civilians at Haditha, an incident the White House said he learnt of only when briefed by staff a month after a reporter asked about it.
Bush has vowed to punish those responsible if a military inquiry verifies allegations that US Marines rampaged through houses in the Iraqi town of Haditha on November 19 and fatally shot two dozen civilians, including women and children.
"I'm not involved with the investigation," Bush told reporters after a Cabinet meeting. "And you shouldn't expect me to be. I expect this investigation to be conducted independent of the White House, with a full and thorough investigation."
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 one Marine by a roadside bomb.
Bush learnt of the probe a month later through a March 11 briefing by National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, White House spokesman Tony Snow said.
In his first public comments on Haditha, Bush yesterday said he was troubled by news stories about it and promised there would be punishment if laws were broken.
Asked why Bush did not speak out sooner, Snow said Bush did not want to get in the way of the fact-finding process or appear to prejudice it.
"The president is commander in chief. If the commander in chief says anything that might be regarded as prejudicial to proceedings, those who are conducting the inquiries and those who might be called upon to conduct trials are therefore going to be hamstrung," Snow said.
A US defence official said a fact-finding inquiry led by Army Maj. Gen. Eldon Bargewell is looking at not only whether Marines involved in the November 19 incident lied about what happened, but whether senior Marine Corps officers sufficiently examined the veracity of the troops' account.
Bargewell's probe into whether Marines tried to cover up the true nature of the incident is one of two ongoing military investigations. A criminal probe by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service could lead to charges including murder.
Defence officials previously have said a preliminary military probe conducted in February and March found evidence that the Marines involved in the incident gave a false account of what happened.
The initial military statement on the incident said 15 civilians were killed in the explosion of a roadside bomb that also claimed the life of Marine Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas. But the preliminary investigation included forensic data showing the civilians died from bullet wounds.
The defence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Bargewell was looking at whether higher ranking officers looked aggressively enough into what actually happened in Haditha. The official said any incident in which a US Marine is killed normally "gets looked at pretty carefully."
The official said it was possible Bargewell could submit his findings to Army Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the No. 2 US commander in Iraq, in about a week, but that Chiarelli would then take some time to review the findings and decide how to proceed, including possible disciplinary action.
The military today directed troops in Iraq to undergo new training in the next month on the need to follow legal, moral and ethical standards on the battlefield. "This is just a reminder for troops either in Iraq or throughout our military that there are high standards expected of them, and that there are strong rules of engagement," Bush said.