WASHINGTON, June 8, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. military has had little to say since reports surfaced last week that members of the Marine Corps may have killed 25 unarmed civilians in two separate incidents in Iraq.
That was also true of a short news conference given by General Michael Hagee on June 7. Hagee, a top Marine commander, said he was still not in a position to offer any details because the investigations are still ongoing.
However, Hagee said he was "gravely concerned" about the allegations and promised that any Marine found guilty of wrongdoing would be punished.
A small unit of Marines is suspected of shooting 24 unarmed Iraqi civilians, among them women and children, in the town of Al-Haditha on November 19, after a roadside bomb exploded and killed a member of their unit. The investigation is focusing on the event itself, as well as an alleged cover-up of what actually happened at the scene.
In a second case, at Hamdaniyah this April, another group of Marines is accused of pulling an unarmed man from his home and shooting him without cause on April 26. Seven Marines and one Navy corpsman are in custody in Camp Pendleton, California, pending charges.
Witnesses to the Al-Haditha incident have told reporters that the group of Marines shot women and children at close range. The Marines originally said that 15 of the civilians were killed in the bomb explosion, along with one Marine, and the rest were insurgents who died in the firefight that followed.
The Marines have since acknowledged that this original version is not true.
Both cases are being investigated by the U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service.
Ethical Training 'Is Not A One-Time Thing'
When a reporter asked Hagee if he felt it was his duty to resign, the general replied that he serves "at the pleasure of the president," and had not submitted his resignation.
Hagee made clear he is "responsible" and that "as commandant, I am the one accountable for organization, training, and equipping of Marines.
After the Al-Haditha and Hamdaniyah cases came to public attention, U.S. military leaders in Iraq announced that all U.S. troops, not just Marines, would be required to take a refresher course in ethical behavior.
But Hagee said discussion of combat ethics "is a continuous thing the entire time that you're in the Marine Corps... We talk about standards, we talk about values when we talk with the troops. This is not a one-time thing."
Hagee said that he said the Marines' morale was high when he visited Iraq last week. The troops had told him they were proud of the job they were doing and of their mission in Iraq, the Marine commander said.
Reporters at the press briefing repeatedly asked Hagee about reported details of both cases, including reports that a set of photographs were taken at the scene by Marine investigators after the killings at Al-Haditha.
The general refused to answer such queries, saying he could not respond while investigations are pending. But he promised to keep the public abreast of developments.