Three high-ranking Marines were given censures, the military's most severe administrative punishment, for their roles in investigating the deaths of 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha, the Marine Corps said.

Maj. Gen. Richard A. Huck, former commanding general of the 2nd Marine Division, received a letter of censure from the secretary of the Navy for the "actions he took and failed to take" in response to the killings, according to a Marine Corps statement issued Wednesday.

The statement did not elaborate, but a senior Marine official said that no investigation was initiated immediately after the killings. The official noted the first probe didn't start until media reported on the killings, but also said "there was no evidence of an intentional cover-up."

Huck, the top general in charge of Marines in Iraq's Al Anbar province at the time, testified in May that he knew about the deaths the day they occurred but considered them simply a "truly unfortunate" consequence of war. He said he only later learned of allegations that the civilians had been targeted.

Huck's chief of staff, Col. Robert G. Sokoloski, also received a censure, for unsatisfactory performance of his duties. Col. Stephen W. Davis was given a censure for failure to take action. Maj. Gen. Stephen T. Johnson, former commanding general of II Marine Expeditionary Force, was fully exonerated, the statement said.

"Accountability and responsibility are the foundation of all we do as Marines," said Gen. James T. Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps.

"While these three officers have served their country and corps exceedingly well for decades, their actions, inactions and decisions in the aftermath of the Haditha incident did not meet the high standards we expect of Marine senior officer leadership," Conway said.

Twenty-four civilians, including women and children, were killed by a Marine squad in Haditha on Nov. 19, 2005, after a roadside bomb killed a Marine. Four enlisted Marines were charged with murder, and four officers were charged with dereliction of duty for failing to investigate; charges against two of the enlisted men and one officer have since been dropped.

Wednesday's three disciplinary actions, all less severe than criminal charges, came as a preliminary hearing continued to determine if one of the enlisted men, Staff. Sgt. Frank Wuterich, 27, of Meriden, Conn., should face a court-martial on charges of unpremeditated murder.

Wuterich has acknowledged shooting five men near the scene of the bomb blast but claims he did so because they were running from the site of the explosion. Combat rules at the time allowed Marines to shoot at people fleeing the scene of an attack.

Capt. Alfonso Capers, to whom Wuterich reported for about two years before the killings, struggled for an answer in military court when Lt. Col. Paul Ware asked how Marines are trained to confront mixed crowds of enemies and civilians.

"Is there a schoolbook answer?" Ware asked.

"There's not," Capers replied.

Capers acknowledged some limits on tactics in such situations.

"Shoot first, ask questions later means everyone's expendable," Capers said. "You can't do that."

Prosecutors are focusing on how the five men died because they have a witness, Sgt. Sanick Dela Cruz, who claims the men were not running and had their hands in the air when he saw Wuterich shoot them. Dela Cruz was initially charged with murdering the men, but the charges were dismissed and he was given immunity to testify against Wuterich.

Wuterich's lead civilian attorney said Dela Cruz's account was false.

The preliminary hearing was set to conclude Thursday, Ware said. He will eventually make a recommendation on whether Wuterich should be court-martialed. Lt. Gen. James Mattis, the general overseeing the case, makes the final decision.

In Washington, the senior Marine official who briefed Pentagon reporters on the Wednesday's disciplinary actions against the three officers said that having the censure on their records would make it difficult for the three to receive future promotions and could result in a reduction in rank for the purpose of calculating retirement benefits.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity so he could speak freely about the personnel matter, declined to release the text of the letters.

There is no appeal to a letter of censure, but the three officers can write rebuttal statements that will be put into their records. The officers have five days to acknowledge the notification and then 15 days to submit any rebuttal statement.

Phone messages seeking comment from the three were not immediately returned.