WASHINGTON -- Photographs taken by a Marine intelligence team have convinced investigators that a Marine unit killed up to 24 unarmed Iraqis, some of them ``execution style," in the insurgent stronghold of Haditha after a roadside bomb killed one American in November, officials close to the investigation say.
The pictures reportedly show wounds to the upper bodies of the victims, who included several women and six children. Some were shot in the head, and some in the back, according to congressional and defense officials.
One government official said Friday that the pictures show that infantry Marines from Camp Pendleton ``suffered a total breakdown in morality and leadership, with tragic results."
The case may be the most serious example of alleged war crimes in Iraq by US troops. Marine officers have long been worried that Iraq's bloody insurgency could prompt such an overzealous reaction by combat teams.
An investigation by an Army general into the Nov. 19 deaths is to be delivered soon to the top operational commander in Iraq. A separate criminal investigation is also underway and could lead to charges ranging from murder to dereliction of duty.
Both investigations are centered on a dozen Marines from the Third Battalion, First Marine regiment, First Marine division. The battalion was on its third deployment to Iraq when the killings occurred.
Most of the fatal shots appear to have been fired by only a few of the Marines, possibly a four-man ``fire-team" led by a sergeant, said officials with knowledge of the investigation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The same sergeant is suspected of filing a false report downplaying the number of Iraqis killed, saying that they were killed by an insurgent bomb and that Marines entered the Iraqis' homes in search of gunmen firing at them. All aspects of his story are contradicted by pictures, statements by Marines to investigators, and an inspection of the houses involved, officials said.
Other Marines may face criminal charges for not stopping the carnage or for inaccurate reports.
Of the dead Iraqis, 19 were in three to four houses that Marines stormed. Five others were killed near a vehicle.
The intelligence team took the pictures shortly after the shooting stopped. Such teams are typically assigned to collect information on insurgents after firefights or other military engagements.
Investigators and top officers of the Camp Pendleton-based First Marine Expeditionary Force, which oversees Marine infantry, aviation, and support units in Iraq, have viewed the pictures.
The Nov. 19 shootings began when a roadside bomb attached to a large propane canister exploded as Marines passed through the Euphrates River town . Lance Corporal Miguel Terrazas, who was driving a Humvee, was killed instantly, and two other Marines were wounded.
Marines quickly determined that the bomb was a ``line-of-sight" explosive that would have required someone to detonate it. Marines and Iraqi forces searched houses and other structures in the narrow, dusty streets. Jets dropped 500-pound bombs and a drone aircraft circled overhead.
Time magazine, in a report published in late March, quoted witnesses, including a 9-year-old girl, Eman Waleed, who said that he saw Marines kill her grandfather and grandmother and that other adults in the house died while shielding her and her 8-year-old brother, Abdul Rahman.
An elder in Haditha later went to Marine officials at the battalion's headquarters to report wanton killings.
The Marines involved in the shootings initially reported that they had become embroiled in a firefight with insurgents after the explosion. Evidence that emerged later, however, contradicted that story.
``The wounds indicated execution-style" shootings, said a Defense Department official who had been briefed on the contents of the photos.
The Marine Corps backed off its initial explanation, and the investigations were launched after Time published its account.
Some lawmakers are asking the Marine Corps why an investigation wasn't launched earlier if the intelligence team's pictures taken immediately after the shooting stopped contradicted the squad's story. The pictures from the intelligence team would probably have been given to the battalion intelligence officer, and they should have raised questions immediately, one congressional aide said.
The intelligence teams are typically Marine Corps reservists, often police officers or other law enforcement officials in civilian life who are embedded with active duty battalions or regiments.
Such questions were put to Marine Commandant General Michael Hagee during a series of individual briefings over the past week.
One focus of the administrative investigation by Army Major General Eldon Bargewell is aimed at finding out how high up the Marine Corps chain of command the misreporting reached.