BAGHDAD -- America's two top officials in Iraq yesterday sought to calm Iraqi anger over allegations that US soldiers were involved in the rape-murder of a girl, promising an open investigation and calling such acts ``absolutely inexcusable and unacceptable."
The rare joint statement from US ambassador to Iraq Dr. Zalmay Khalilzad and General George W. Casey, the senior US commander in Iraq, came as military officers investigated the apparent failures of leadership to keep a close watch on American troops.
Several groups of soldiers and Marines are under investigation for alleged slayings of unarmed civilians, and three US soldiers were killed by insurgents last month after they apparently were left alone despite procedures designed to prevent such a situation .
The joint statement underscored US efforts to contain the political damage that the March 12 killing of a girl and three relatives has caused among an Iraqi public increasingly weary of foreign troops.
``The alleged events of that day are absolutely inexcusable and unacceptable behavior," the statement said. ``We will fully pursue all the facts in a vigorous and open process as we investigate this situation."
Khalilzad and Casey promised a vigorous investigation and prosecution of the case and pledged to ``work closely with the government of Iraq to ensure transparency" as they complete the investigation and legal processes.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has called for an independent investigation into the attack and a review of the agreement granting US forces immunity from prosecution by Iraqi courts.
Ex-soldier Steven D. Green has been charged with rape and four counts of murder in the March 12 case in Mahmoudiya, 20 miles south of Baghdad. At least three soldiers still in Iraq are under investigation, including a sergeant, a specialist,and a private first class, a defense official in Baghdad said yesterday.
The case has raised questions about adherence to procedures set for US troops in Iraq, as well as discipline within the suspects' unit. The soldiers were from the First Battalion, 502d Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, the same unit hit by insurgent killings of three soldiers last month.
Spokesmen for the 101st Airborne and the Multinational Corps of Iraq refused to discuss the case on the record because of its sensitivity.
The US military has strict rules for soldiers operating outside their bases, designed to ensure they are under supervision and also to protect them. All soldiers leaving their bases are supposed to be accompanied by a noncommissioned officer and travel in at least two vehicles.
The rape-murder investigation has raised questions about whether there are problems with how the military operates since soldiers allegedly left their post without someone raising questions.
U S officials and analysts say the problem may not be the procedures but the leaders responsible for enforcing them.
``Somebody had to have known. The procedures are fine," said Tim Brown, an analyst with Globalsecurity.org, a military think tank based in Washington. ``Maybe in the case of this particular unit the failure goes a lot higher, to the failure of the command to properly enforce the rules."
A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigation is underway, maintained the procedures ``that are in place are right and good." The official said the question is whether the procedures are being ``followed all the time."