WASHINGTON (AFP) – The US administration promised full public disclosure of the results of a military probe into the alleged killing of civilians by US Marines in Iraq amid accusations of a cover-up.
White House spokesman Tony Snow said the US Marine Corps was taking an “active and aggressive role” in investigating allegations that its troops killed at least 24 civilians in the Iraqi town of Haditha.
“I have been told and was assured earlier today when I called about it that when this (result) comes out, all the details will be made available to the public,” Snow told reporters.
The US administration faced renewed accusations by Representative John Murtha (news, bio, voting record), a Democrat and harsh critic of the Iraq war, of a military cover-up of the November 19, 2005 incident and said it would rival the Abu Ghraib scandal.
He charged that US military authorities had paid compensation to the families of the victims, indicating they had assumed responsibility for the deaths.
“They paid people 1,500 to 2,500 dollars. This doesn’t happen unless it comes at the highest authority,” Murtha said in a CNN interview.
Asked if he meant victims’ compensation, Murtha said: “Yes. And that doesn’t happen … if it’s an explosive device.”
Murtha repeated his accusation that the US Marines were seeking to “cover up” the killings.
“This is what worries me. We’re fighting a war about America’s ideals and democracy’s ideas and something like this happens, they try to cover it up.”
“It is as bad as Abu Ghraib, if not worse,” he said.
It was vital that the alleged crimes be prosecuted promptly “so the world understands that we don’t condone something like this,” the Pennsylvania lawmaker, a former marine, said.
Snow, the White House spokesman, said that President George W. Bush was concerned by the allegations. But Snow added that Bush was only briefed about the killings, by national security advisor Stephen Hadley, after a Time magazine report about Haditha in March.
“I think anybody who’s heard the story has a personal interest and it’s impossible not to,” Snow said.
“But the president also is allowing the chain of command to do what it’s supposed to do in the Department of Defense, which is to complete an investigation.
“The marines are taking an active and aggressive role in this,” he said.
At issue are the deaths of 24 Iraqi civilians in the town of Haditha on November 19 shortly after a US service member was killed by a roadside bomb.
Five Iraqis were killed fleeing a taxi and 19 men, women and children were killed inside or around four homes as members of the US Marines’s Kilo Company moved through the town, according to media accounts.
Murtha accused the US Marines of promptly covering up the incident.
“They knew the day after this happened that it was not as they portrayed it. They knew that they (marines) went into the rooms, they killed the people in the taxi. There was no firing at all. And this comes from the highest authority in the Marine Corps, so there’s no question in my mind,” Murtha said.
Two separate US military investigations are under way into the killings.
The new Iraqi ambassador to the United States meanwhile accused US Marines of “intentionally” killing his cousin in the same Iraqi town five months earlier in a separate incident.
Speaking only hours after presenting his credentials to Bush at the White House, Ambassador Samir al-Sumaidaie charged on Tuesday his relative was shot dead in Haditha.
The ambassador told how Mohammed al-Sumaidaie, a 21-year-old engineering student, was killed after opening the door of the family house to US Marines on June 25.
“I believe he was killed intentionally. I believe he was killed unnecessarily,” al-Sumaidaie said on CNN television’s “The Situation Room”.
“The Marines were doing house-to-house searches, and they went into the house of my cousin. He opened the door for them. His mother, his siblings were there. He let them into the bedroom of his father, and there he was shot.”
At the time, al-Sumaidaie was the ambassador to the United Nations and the US military agreed to investigate the death after he released a statement.
Al-Sumaidaie said the investigation “concluded that there was no unlawful killing. I would like further investigation,” he told CNN.
The ambassador added that General George Casey, commander of US forces in Iraq, had rejected a first investigation into the death. Al-Sumaiddaie said he was still waiting to see a copy of the report.
The ambassador said his family had been told his cousin was shot dead “in self-defence” but he could not believe this.
“I know the boy. He was in second year engineering courses at the university. Nothing to do with violence. All his life has been studies and intellectual work.”
The ambassador added that he was also suspicious about the deaths of three other youths in Haditha shortly after that of his cousin. “They were in a car, they were unarmed, I believe, and they were shot.”