White House spokesman Tony Snow said the U.S. military is currently investigating the alleged incident in the Iraqi town of Al-Hadithah, which is located in the western Al-Anbar Governorate, a hotbed of Sunni insurgency.
U.S. media reports have alleged that U.S. Marines on November 19, 2005, shot and killed up to 24 unarmed Iraqi civilians, including women and children, in Al-Hadithah following a roadside-bomb explosion that killed one U.S. soldier.
"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." -- Congressman Murtha
Snow said on May 30 that U.S. President George W. Bush has been briefed on the incident and the ongoing investigation, and promised that the results of the investigation will be made public.
"The President [George W. Bush] also is allowing the chain of command to do what it's supposed to do within the Department of Defense, which is to complete an investigation," Snow said. "The Marines are taking an active and aggressive role in this. And I have been told and was assured earlier today when I called about that -- when this comes out, all the details will be made available to the public. So we'll have a picture of what happened."Reports Spurred Investigation
Frederick Jones, a spokesman for the U.S. National Security Council, said questions asked by the U.S. news weekly "Time" prompted a probe into the Al-Hadithah incident and revealed "a potential cover-up."
"Time" first brought the incident to the attention of the multinational forces in Baghdad on February 10. In March, the magazine quoted local witnesses and human rights activists as saying Marines raided three houses in Al-Hadithah following the death of 20-year-old Corporal Miguel Terrazas in a roadside-bomb attack in the early hours of November 19, 2005.
According to the reports, U.S. soldiers went on a rampage, shooting 19 unarmed men, women, and children in three houses. Troops also reportedly shot and killed five unarmed men when they arrived on the site in a car.
An Iraqi human rights group issued a video in March showing bodies, including that of a 3-year-old child, and containing alleged witness accounts of the killings. Those reports prompted the U.S. military to admit that the dead civilians were shot, not killed in the roadside-bomb blast, as initially stated at the time of the incident.
In April, three commanding officers of the company of Marines involved in the incident were relieved of command.Alleged Military 'Cover-Up'
The scandal escalated on May 28, when U.S. Representative John Murtha (Democrat, Pennsylvania), a former Marine and a staunch critic of the Iraq war, accused the military of a cover-up.
"I will not excuse murder, and this is what happened," Murtha told ABC News. "There is no question in my mind about it. 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."
The same day, Senator John Warner (Republican, Virginia), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, announced he would hold hearings on the killings.Iraqis Demand Justice
In Iraq, the original response to the Al-Hadithah incident was muted. But the new details that emerged over the past week have triggered a strong government reaction.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki called on May 30 for those responsible to be punished because their actions exceeded "an acceptable limit to mistakes, and when [the mistakes] exceed this limit and turn into disrespect for the people's dignity and the people's blood, this, for us, means a disdain for the lives of the innocent."
But the scandal, which comes at a time of heightened sectarian tensions between the majority Shi'a and minority Sunni Arabs, is threatening to further radicalize the Sunnis.
Abd al-Salam al-Kubaisi, a spokesman of the influential Sunni-led Muslim Scholars Association, has said the Al-Hadithah killings amount to a war crime, and called for U.S. commanders to also be held responsible.
In another incident likely to fuel the scandal, the U.S. military said today that two Iraqi women were shot to death north of Baghdad, after coalition forces fired at a car that failed to stop at an observation post.
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