As the furor over the alleged murder of 24 Iraqi civilians in the city of Haditha by U.S. forces continues to build, the BBC is reporting that a new videotape appears to document yet another mass killing of Iraqi civilians by American forces, this time in the city of Balad. In addition, eight soldiers being held in detention at Camp Pendleton in California could be charged soon with the murder of an Iraqi civilian in a separate incident.
According to the BBC, the newly surfaced tape contradicts the U.S. military's account of what caused the death of 11 civilians in Balad on March 15. At the time, the military said four people died when a building collapsed on them after an intense firefight, which was spurred by a tip that an al-Qaeda supporter was hiding in a nearby house.
But Iraqi police claim the troops rounded up and deliberately shot and killed the 11 civilians — five children, four women and two men — before blowing up the building, according to the BBC. CNN reported that Balad police officials quoted eyewitnesses describing a scene in which U.S. soldiers kept an entire family detained in a room of the house before spraying them randomly with bullets, destroying the building and killing the family's livestock.
The tape obtained by the BBC reportedly shows a number of dead adults and children — one as young as 6 months old — at the site, with obvious gunshot wounds. The images came from a hardline Sunni group opposed to coalition forces, but the BBC said they had been cross-checked with other images taken at the same time and are believed to be genuine. The military is reportedly investigating the incident.
In a separate case, the Marine Corps is expected to file criminal charges, including several murder and conspiracy counts, against eight military personnel over the shooting of an Iraqi civilian on April 26 in Hamandiya.
A source close to the investigation told The Los Angeles Times that the seven Marines and one Navy corpsman may have attempted to cover up the murder by planting a gun and shovel on the Iraqi to make it seem as if he was an armed insurgent digging a hole to plant a bomb.
Democratic Congressman and Iraq war critic John Murtha, a retired Marine colonel and decorated Vietnam veteran, told ABC television that, "some Marines pulled somebody out of a house, put them next to an [improvised explosive device], fired some [AK-47s] so they'd have cartridges there. And then tried to cover that up."
The charges in the case will go to a preliminary hearing first, after which an officer will recommend to the commanding general whether the case should go to a court-martial, according to the Times. It is unclear when the charges might be filed. A spokesperson at Camp Pendleton in California, where the men are being held in the brig, would only say "the investigation is still ongoing and no charges have been preferred."
The Times reported that locking up Marines under investigation is unusual and suggests that the Corps fears they might try to flee. In contrast, the Marines allegedly involved in the massacre of 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha are being held at Camp Pendleton, but are not in the brig.
The Times said the investigations into the two alleged massacres have been handled differently, with the Haditha probe beginning only after Time magazine began asking questions about the incident in January and February, after which the Marine Corps backed off its initial assertion that the Iraqis had been killed in crossfire or by an insurgent bomb (see "Pentagon Finds Haditha Cover-Up; 'Values' Training Ordered For Troops"). In the Hamandiya case, an investigation began more promptly.
That is not enough for Iraqi officials, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who said the country will conduct its own investigations and could ask for stronger restraints on foreign troops as a condition of their staying in Iraq.
"These forces do not respect the citizens, some of whom are crushed by tanks, others shot. ... They run them over and leave them, or they kill anyone suspicious," al-Maliki said Thursday.
As the probe into the Haditha massacre continues, The Washington Post reported on Friday that criminal investigators are hoping to exhume the bodies of several of Iraqi civilians allegedly gunned down in the incident to recover potentially important forensic evidence, such as the distance at which shots were fired and the caliber of the bullets and the angles of the shots. That information could be helpful in determining how events unfolded and who might have been involved, though naval investigators initially disregarded the evidence because the slayings were not originally treated as crimes.
Investigators said the November 19 incident was not reported to them as a criminal case until nearly four months later. The delay has created a number of obstacles for investigators, who have had to rely on dated information and witnesses who have had months to work on their stories. Additionally, a former military prosecutor told the Times that the case might be very difficult to prove.
"I think there's plenty of avenues for defense in this case — the fact that it wasn't initially investigated, the fact that there's been plenty of time for witnesses to play with stories. There's a lot of wiggle room in there," said Vaughan Taylor, an instructor in criminal law at the Army's Judge Advocate General's Legal Center and School.
In other Iraq news:
- U.S. Army Sergeant Santos Cardona was found guilty Thursday of assaulting a prisoner with his dog at Abu Ghraib prison, making him the 11th soldier convicted in that scandal. Cardona was convicted on two out of nine counts against him — failing to handle his dog properly and using the unmuzzled Belgian shepherd to threaten a detainee — and faces up to 3 1/2 years in prison.
- The military is investigating an incident on Wednesday in which a 33-year-old pregnant woman on her way to the hospital to give birth was shot and killed along with her cousin by U.S. troops. According to reports, the pair accidentally wound up in a prohibited area after getting lost and were fired on when they ignored signals from troops to stop their car.