Report Marines Killed Iraqi Civilians

Marines killed 15 Iraqi civilians, including women and children, in Haditha last November. Contrary to initial reports, they had taken no hostile fire. They then covered up the massacre with false reports of IEDs.

A military investigation into the deaths of two dozen Iraqis last November is expected to find that a small number of marines in western Iraq carried out extensive, unprovoked killings of civilians, Congressional, military and Pentagon officials said Thursday. Two lawyers involved in discussions about individual marines’ defenses said they thought the investigation could result in charges of murder, a capital offense. That possibility and the emerging details of the killings have raised fears that the incident could be the gravest case involving misconduct by American ground forces in Iraq.

Officials briefed on preliminary results of the inquiry said the civilians killed at Haditha, a lawless, insurgent-plagued city deep in Sunni-dominated Anbar Province, did not die from a makeshift bomb, as the military first reported, or in cross-fire between marines and attackers, as was later announced. A separate inquiry has begun to find whether the events were deliberately covered up. Evidence indicates that the civilians were killed during a sustained sweep by a small group of marines that lasted three to five hours and included shootings of five men standing near a taxi at a checkpoint, and killings inside at least two homes that included women and children, officials said. That evidence, described by Congressional, Pentagon and military officials briefed on the inquiry, suggested to one Congressional official that the killings were “methodical in nature.”

Congressional and military officials say the Naval Criminal Investigative Service inquiry is focusing on the actions of a Marine Corps staff sergeant serving as squad leader at the time, but that Marine officials have told members of Congress that up to a dozen other marines in the unit are also under investigation. Officials briefed on the inquiry said that most of the bullets that killed the civilians were now thought to have been “fired by a couple of rifles,” as one of them put it.


In an unusual sign of high-level concern, the commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Michael W. Hagee, flew from Washington to Iraq on Thursday to give a series of speeches to his forces re-emphasizing compliance with international laws of armed conflict, the Geneva Conventions and the American military’s own rules of engagement. “Recent serious allegations concerning actions of marines in combat have caused me concern,” General Hagee said in a statement issued upon his departure. The statement did not mention any specific incident.

The first official report from the military, issued on Nov. 20, said that “a U.S. marine and 15 Iraqi civilians were killed yesterday from the blast of a roadside bomb” and that “immediately following the bombing, gunmen attacked the convoy with small-arms fire.” Military investigators have since uncovered a far different set of facts from what was first reported, partly aided by marines who are cooperating with the inquiry and partly guided by reports filed by a separate unit that arrived to gather intelligence and document the attack; those reports contradicted the original version of the marines, Pentagon officials said. Tne senior Defense Department official who has been briefed on the initial findings, when asked how many of the 24 dead Iraqis were killed by the improvised bomb as initially reported, paused and said, “Zero.”

Shameful. As I noted when Rep. John Murtha foreshadowed this report, these things, sadly, happen in all wars of any significant scope. Fortunately, the vast number of our soldiers and Marines conduct themselves honorably. Unfortunately, the dirty few permanently damage the reputation of the others and hinder the accomplishment of their mission.

Related: Murtha: Marines Murdered 15 Unarmed Iraqi Civilians

FILED UNDER: Congress, Iraq War, Military Affairs, , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Ugh says:

    Hearts and minds.

  2. Bhoe says:

    these things, sadly, happen in all wars of any significant scope.

    The deliberate targeting and murder of innocent civilians and the subsequent covering up of these war crimes up the chain of command JUST HAPPENS?

    It seems like cover-ups happen quite alot–just think back to the whole Pat Tillman atrocity.

  3. James Joyner says:

    Bhoe: It happened in Vietnam, WWII, and the Civil War, certainly. It’s especially likely in counterinsurgency ops where the distinction between combatants and non-combatants is blurrier. You give 19-year-old kids guns and a few cowards and/or sadists will do bad things.

    The chain of command tends to side with those on the ground at the lower level until given a strong reason to doubt it. Then, when suspicion creeps in, PR concerns surface.

  4. Anderson says:

    Herb on JJ’s previous post on the subject:

    That Female Ohio Congresswoman had it right. Murtha is a coward. Gary Gross has it right also, he is a traitor. A traitor to the American People as well as to the US Marines.

    Murtha is no doubt seeking his 15 minutes of fame by making charges that are no less than that of an Anti American rumor monger that is hell bent on trying to destroy a Military group that has the highest traditions of patriotism under their belts and who have proven the highest integrity standards obtainable.

    Need some carbons for your apology, Herb?

    Or is this guy a traitor, etc. too?

    Representative John Kline, a Minnesota Republican who is a retired Marine colonel, said that the allegations indicated that “this was not an accident. This was direct fire by marines at civilians.” He added, “This was not an immediate response to an attack. This would be an atrocity.”

    When will they invent a version of this for comment threads?

  5. ICallMasICM says:

    ‘It seems like cover-ups happen quite alot’

    Didn’t they just investigate it?

  6. tk says:

    Fortunately, the vast number of our soldiers and Marines conduct themselves honorably. Unfortunately, the dirty few permanently damage the reputation of the others and hinder the accomplishment of their mission.

    How do you know that? Is it perhaps a “rule of engagement” to shoot at everything that moves when attacked, perhaps as a sort of collective punishment?

  7. James Joyner says:

    I know because I’ve served with and led American soldiers, including in a war zone. It’s not in the nature of most of our soldiers to do these things and they’re incredibly well trained.

    The reports seem to indicate that these men were not “attacked.” And, no, I’m quite sure the ROE in urban ops don’t involve shooting first and asking questions later.

  8. Bithead says:

    There’s a lot here we don’t know yet.
    I find the timing of all this suspicious at best.
    Convicting these men absent a lot of the needed info, much less a trial, seems less than prudent.

  9. anjin-san says:

    In a war, these tragedys are unavoidable. We need to get back to the core question, was this war really necessary?