US will punish 'massacre' Marines, vows Bush

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The Independent US

United States Army investigators have unearthed evidence of a cover-up in the first official account after the Haditha incident on 19 November, where marines may have gone on a rampage, killing up to 24 civilians in the north western Iraqi town.

That initial version said that a marine and 15 Iraqi civilians had been killed in an insurgent attack. But according to The New York Times, a military investigation has now uncovered death certificates showing that all the Iraqis - some of them women and young children - had been killed by gunshot wounds, mostly to the head and chest.

In addition, it is now known that the marines' battalion commander had authorised cash payments of $38,000 (£20,000) to the families of the victims not long after the shootings, following a ruling that those killed had not been involved any attack on US troops.

The alleged massacre at Haditha has the potential to be the most damaging incident to the reputation of the US in Iraq since the prison abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib.

"Nobody is more concerned about these allegations than the Marine Corps," President George Bush said yesterday in his first comments on the affair. "Those who violated the law, if they did, will be punished." Two investigations, one by the Navy Criminal Investigation Service, are almost complete, and every sign is that several marines will face charges, possibly of premeditated murder, which could carry the death penalty, when the results are made public, almost certainly later this month.

In Iraq, anger over such incidents is intense. Even the new Prime Minister, Nuri al-Maliki, hyas spoken of how he is losing patience with the US military's "excuses" over "mistakes." Yesterday, American forces also denied that they killed three unarmed civilians at their home in Samarra last month.

In a separate case, US soldiers are said to have killed two Iraqi women - one of them about to give birth - when they fired at a vehicle that failed to stop at an observation post in Samarra. The vehicle was racing to a maternity hospital, survivors reportedly said.