BAGHDAD, Iraq – The fatal shooting of a wounded and apparently unarmed man in a Fallujah (search) mosque by a U.S. Marine angered Sunni Muslims in Iraq on Tuesday and raised questions about the protection of insurgents once they are out of action.
International legal experts said the Marine may have acted in self-defense because of a danger that a wounded combatant might try to blow up a hidden weapon; a key issue was whether the injured man was a prisoner at the time.
The shooting happened Saturday, one day after the Marine, who has not been identified, was wounded in the face and after another man in his unit was killed by the booby-trapped body of an insurgent.
However, the incident could cause major political problems for the government of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi (search) and his U.S. backers at a time when Iraqi authorities are seeking to contain a backlash among Sunnis to the invasion of the former insurgent stronghold of Fallujah.
American and Iraqi authorities tried to prevent rage from spreading among Sunnis, many of whom watched dramatic footage of the shooting that aired throughout the day on Al-Jazeera (search) television, a Qatar-based satellite station.
"Look at this old man who was slain by them," said Ahmed Khalil, 40, as he watched the video in his Baghdad shop. "Was he a fighter? Was anybody who was killed inside this mosque a fighter? Where are their weapons? I don't know what to say."
It was unclear to what extent other Iraqis, particularly the majority Shiite Muslims, cared about the shooting.
Maysoun Hirmiz, 36, a Christian merchant in Baghdad, said she was not satisfied by an announcement by the U.S. military that it had removed the Marine from the battlefield and will investigate whether he acted in self defense.
"They will say or do the same thing they did with the soldiers who committed the abuses against Iraqis detainees in Abu Ghraib prison, and they are still free, enjoying their lives while they destroyed other peoples' lives," Hirmiz said.
The central figures who allegedly carried out the physical abuse and sexual humiliation of inmates at the notorious prison west of Baghdad are currently on trial, facing trial or have already been sentenced.
The Abu Ghraib scandal, which erupted last spring when photos of the abuse became public, generated a worldwide wave of revulsion that raised questions about the treatment of Muslim prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere as part of the Bush administration's war on terror.
The shooting in the Fallujah mosque became public Monday with the airing of the footage taken Saturday by pool correspondent Kevin Sites of NBC News. In his report, Sites said the man who was killed didn't appear to be armed or threatening in any way, with no weapons visible in the mosque.
In a statement Tuesday, the 1st Marine Division said it launched its investigation "to determine whether the Marine acted in self-defense, violated military law or failed to comply with the Law of Armed Conflict."
It was unclear from the statement whether the incident was reported through the chain of command Saturday or only when the pool footage became generally available two days later.
Sites said three other insurgents wounded Friday in the mosque were also shot again Saturday by the Marines.
International legal experts said protection of injured combatants once they are out of action is a basic rule in warfare but that the Marine shown in the video may have acted in self-defense.
Charles Heyman, a British infantry veteran and senior defense analyst with Jane's Consultancy Group in London, defended the Marine, saying soldiers are taught that the enemy "is at his most dangerous when he is severely injured."
Other experts contacted by The Associated Press were careful to avoid a public judgment because of the dangerous and uncertain situation in Fallujah, where U.S. troops were still fighting insurgents.
"It's clearly recognized that people in combat situations are under enormous strain," international Red Cross spokesman Florian Westphal said in Geneva. "Obviously, we were not on the spot so we cannot judge the precise circumstances of what was being shown here."
Westphal said the Geneva Conventions are clear: Protection of wounded combatants once they are out of action is an absolute requirement.
However, the status of the wounded man was unclear. A different Marine unit had come under fire from the mosque on Friday. Those Marines stormed the building, killing 10 men and wounding five, according to Sites. He said Marines treated the wounded and left them.
The same five men were in the mosque Saturday when Marines from another unit arrived. Westphal said he couldn't say for sure from NBC's account whether the man was a prisoner.
Heyman said there is a danger that a wounded enemy may try to detonate a hidden firearm or a grenade, and if the man made the slightest move "in my estimation they would be justified in shooting him."
However, legal distinctions are unlikely to carry much weight among many Iraqis, especially Sunnis already angry over the Fallujah offensive. Allawi said he ordered the assault after Fallujah's leaders refused to hand over Jordanian terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and other foreign fighters.
But Sunni militants saw the invasion of the city 40 miles west of Baghdad as a plot by the Americans and the Shiites, such as Allawi, against religious Sunnis — an allegation both governments deny.
"The troops not only violated our mosques with their sins and their boots but they stepped on our brothers' blood," said Khalil, the shop owner. "They are criminals and mercenaries. I feel guilty standing here and not doing anything."
At a news conference Tuesday, Iraqi Interior Minister Falah Hassan al-Naqib, himself a Sunni, said that although "killing a wounded person is rejected by us," Fallujah militants were "killers and criminals" who committed brutal acts.
That meant little to Hameed Farhan, 51, who works for the Transportation Ministry in Baghdad.
"I did not see it because there was no electricity at home, but my wife was at her parents and she described it for me," Farhan said. "She was crying. Tears welled up in my eyes. I wanted to scream."