Washington U.S. criminal investigators found no evidence to support the claim of Marines charged in the deaths of unarmed Iraqi civilians that five were shot after trying to flee the scene of a roadside bombing that killed one Marine, a senior defense official said Saturday.
Investigators determined that all five Iraqis were shot within arm's length of each other and no more than 18 feet from the white taxi they were ordered to exit by members of a Marine squad in the western Iraqi town of Haditha, said the official, who is familiar with reports produced by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss details of the killings on Nov. 19, 2005.
Two Marines are charged with murder in the five deaths. They are Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich and Sgt. Sanick P. Dela Cruz.
Two other Marines - Lance Cpl. Justin L. Sharratt and Lance Cpl. Stephen B. Tatum - face murder charges in connection with the deaths of other Iraqi civilians shot shortly after the killings near the taxi.
Through his lawyers, Wuterich has claimed he acted appropriately and within military rules governing the use of deadly force in combat.
Mark Zaid, an attorney for Wuterich, said in an interview Saturday he was highly disappointed that information from the government's investigative report on Haditha had been leaked to the media. He called it an effort by unidentified Pentagon officials to "portray a negative slant of these Marines."
Tatum's attorney, Jack Zimmerman, said he received the report the day after Christmas and had not "even begun to crack it." He called disclosure of details from the report a "serious, serious violation" and said he might ask the military to investigate the source of the leak.
These details about the deaths were first reported in Saturday's Washington Post, which said it obtained a copy of a lengthy government investigative report. The Post published photos from the investigative file that had not previously been made public; one shows the five Iraqis sprawled near the taxi.
One of the five may have been kneeling at the time he was shot, the defense official told The Associated Press.
In addition to the four Marines facing murder charges, four other Marines who were not at the scene were charged with dereliction of duty for failing to report or properly investigate the killings. In all, the case involves the deaths of 24 Iraqi civilians.
The Haditha investigation is the biggest U.S. criminal case involving civilian deaths so far in the Iraq war.
Members of an explosive ordnance disposal team that was summoned to the scene scoured the taxi and found no weapons or evidence of bomb-making materials, the defense official said. At least two, and possibly four, of the five Iraqis were students; the other was the taxi driver, who was taking the students to school.
The Marines claimed later that the five were attempting to flee and that they fit the profile of military-age men who, in the past, had acted as spotters for insurgents setting off roadside bombs. Zaid said Wuterich's position is that the five had disobeyed the Marines' orders, issued in Arabic, and were starting to flee. He said the report that they were up to 18 feet from the taxi supports Wuterich's position.
The NCIS investigators determined that the five had no apparent link to the bombing that morning in Haditha that shattered a Marine Humvee utility vehicle and killed Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas; two other Marines were injured.
The shooting of the men near the taxi was the first in a series of violent responses by the Marines, according to the NCIS investigation. The Marines subsequently raided four nearby houses, killing 18 unarmed civilians inside three of the residences. One other was shot dead outside. Among the dead were women and children.
After the deaths, the Marines announced that 15 civilians had been killed in Haditha from a roadside bombing and a Marine firefight with insurgents. The Marines said eight insurgents also were killed. The Marines have since acknowledged that that report was false.
The matter was not investigated by the military until a Time magazine reporter inquired about the deaths in January 2006.