WASHINGTON – The fallout from the killing of as many as two dozen Iraqi civilians by Marines could undermine U.S. efforts in Iraq more than the Abu Ghraib prison scandal did, a lawmaker who is a prominent war critic said Sunday.
"Who covered it up, why did they cover it up, why did they wait so long?" Murtha said on ABC's "This Week." "We don't know how far it goes. It goes right up the chain of command."
A bomb rocked a military convoy on Nov. 19, killing a Marine. Marines then shot and killed unarmed civilians in a taxi at the scene and went into two homes and shot other people, according to Murtha, who has been briefed by officials.
Murtha said high-level reports he received indicated that no one fired upon the Marines and no action was taken against the U.S. forces after the initial explosion. Yet the deaths were not seriously investigated until March because an early probe was stifled within days of the incident, he said.
"I will not excuse murder, and this is what happened," Murtha said. "This investigation should have been over two or three weeks afterward and it should have been made public and people should have been held responsible for it."
Lt. Col. Scott Fazekas, a Marine Corps spokesman, told The Associated Press that the investigation was ongoing and he would have no comment.
Murtha, a former Marine and a prominent critic of Bush administration policies in Iraq, repeated his view that the war in Iraq cannot be won militarily and needs political solutions, which he said were damaged by such incidents involving the U.S.
"This is the kind of war you have to win the hearts and minds of the people," he said. "And we're set back every time something like this happens. This is worse than Abu Ghraib."
The U.S. effort to win over Iraqis and others in the Arab world by fostering a democratic government was severely damaged when it was revealed that U.S. military personnel had abused and humiliated people held at Abu Ghraib, a prison outside of Baghdad.
The incident at Haditha has sparked two investigations — one into the deadly encounter itself and another into whether it was the subject of a cover-up.
The second, noncriminal investigation is examining whether Marines sought to cover up what actually occurred that day and, in doing so, lied about having killed civilians without justification. The Marine Corps had initially attributed 15 civilian deaths to the car bombing and a firefight with insurgents, eight of whom the Marines reported had been killed.
A defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, told The Associated Press on Friday that evidence gathered so far strongly indicated that the Haditha killings were unjustified.
Early this year, a videotape of the aftermath of the incident, showing the bodies of women and children, was obtained by Time magazine and Arab television stations. The military then undertook another investigation.
Sen. John Warner, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he would hold hearings on the killings but cautioned against reaching conclusions until the military concluded its investigation.
"There is this serious question, however, of what happened and when it happened and what was the immediate reaction of the senior officers in the Marine Corps when they began to gain knowledge of it," Warner said.
The Naval Criminal Investigative Service investigation into the shootings is not expected to be completed earlier than in June. Whether violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, including murder, would be pursued would be determined by a senior Marine commander in Iraq.
The NCIS also is conducting a criminal investigation into another incident, the death of an Iraqi civilian on April 26, involving Marines in Hamandiyah, west of Baghdad.