Saturday, May 27, 2006

Marines may be charged in Iraq civilian deaths

Marines may be charged in Iraq civilian deaths
By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Marines could face criminal charges, including murder, over the deaths of up to two dozen Iraqi civilians last year, a defense official said on Friday.

The case could prove a further setback for President Bush who described the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal as America's "biggest mistake" and admitted saying "bring 'em on" to insurgents in 2003 may have "sent the wrong message".

Military and political progress to quell the insurgency has been hard to come by. Iran, blamed by the United States for backing insurgents in Iraq, on Friday ruled out talks with U.S. officials over Iraq because of Washington's "negative" attitude.

The U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service, which handles criminal inquiries involving Marines, is investigating a November 19 incident in Haditha, about 140 miles northwest of Baghdad. The military has said 15 civilians were killed, while a senior Republican lawmaker last week put the number at about 24.

The probe has not been completed and no final decisions on charges have been made, said the defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

The Los Angeles Times reported investigators were expected to call for charges including murder, negligent homicide, dereliction of duty and filing a false report.

The newspaper said military investigators concluded a dozen Marines wantonly killed unarmed civilians, including women and children after a comrade was killed by a roadside bomb.

"Our troops overreacted because of the pressure on them, and they killed innocent civilians in cold blood," Rep. John Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat and retired Marine, said last week.

Marine Corps commander Gen. Michael Hagee flew to Iraq on Thursday to tell his troops to kill "only when justified".

Violence raged across the country again on Friday. One bomb killed nine in Baghdad, and another near a crowded market in the capital killed at least 10 and wounded 18, police said.


Bush has authorized his ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, to hold talks with Iran on what Washington says is meddling there by Tehran, but none have so far taken place amid reports of divisions in the U.S. administration.

U.S. and British officials accuse Iran of providing bomb-making expertise and equipment to Iraqis. Leaders of Iraq's once-dominant Sunni Arab minority say Shi'ite and non-Arab Iran is fomenting unrest in Iraq to shackle U.S. military power.

Iran denies the charges and says it does not want talks.

"We had decided to have direct talks on the issue of Iraq with Americans," said Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki during a visit to Baghdad on Friday.

"Unfortunately, the American side tried to use this decision as propaganda and they raised some other issues. They tried to create a negative atmosphere and that's why the decision which was taken for the time being is suspended," he said.

Mottaki's visit came less than a week after Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shi'ite Islamist, formed a national unity government pledging to curb persistent bloodshed. Iraq's Shi'ite leadership is close to the Islamic Republic.

Washington accuses Iran of seeking nuclear arms, and while seeking sanctions, has not ruled military force against Tehran.

Iran says it only wants civilian nuclear technology and Mottaki warned the United States not to attack Iran.

"In the event that Americans attack Iran anywhere, Iran will respond with an attack in that place," he said.

Mottaki said Tehran would invite Iraq's neighbors and Egypt for a meeting on Iraq at "the first opportunity".

"The regional countries at this meeting will emphasize the continuation of a joint determination to help restore peace and security in Iraq," he said.

(Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny, Omar al-Ibadi, Alastair Macdonald, Aseel Kami, Ahmed Rasheed, Michael Georgy and Fredrik Dahl in Baghdad)