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 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 by the taxi.
Through his lawyers, Wuterich has claimed he acted appropriately and within military rules governing the use of deadly force in combat. Attempts on Saturday to reach lawyers for Wuterich and other accused Marines were unsuccessful.
Dela Cruz told investigators he fired bullets into the five as they lay on the ground and that he later urinated on one, the defense official said.
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.
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 violence 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.
The Marines were with Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, based at Camp Pendleton, Calif.
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, involving an unusually large number of civilian casualties, was not investigated by the military until a Time magazine reporter inquired about the deaths in January 2006.
The military launched the first phase of its investigation in February, and in March it began a separate administrative probe focusing on how the matter was reported in official Marine Corps channels and whether there was an attempted cover-up. On the basis of that investigation, four Marines were charged with dereliction of duty.
The NCIS began its probe in March and it grew into the agency's largest criminal investigation in years.
One worry of military prosecutors is that American investigators failed to persuade the families of the any of the 24 dead to permit their bodies to be exhumed and examined to obtain forensic evidence.
The NCIS had hoped to gain access to the bodies so they could, for example, compare wounds on the bodies to the blood stain patterns at the scene and to other evidence and witness statements.
U.S. government officials went so far as to propose through the Iraqi government in Baghdad last year that a nongovernment humanitarian organization with medical credentials be permitted to exhume and examine the 24 bodies, but the families rejected that approach.