Furore over ex-marine's account of killing of civilians

Last year The Independent on Sunday was one of the first newspapers to publish his story, which has never been challenged by the Marine Corps. But now that Mr Massey's autobiography, Kill, Kill, Kill, has been published in France and is being considered for publication in the US, a reporter who was embedded with the 1,200-man battalion has questioned the veracity of his claims.

Earlier this month Ron Harris wrote a series in his newspaper, the St Louis Post-Dispatch, under headlines that included, "Is Jimmy Massey Telling the Truth About Iraq?". The articles seized on minor discrepancies of detail and implied that, because Mr Massey suffers from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, he is less than reliable.

Mr Harris's articles were immediately taken up by the pro-war lobby, triggering diatribes against Mr Massey on the internet. The first piece was circulated to media by Lt Col Richard Long, public affairs officer at Marine Corps headquarters and director of the embedded reporter programme in Iraq.

But when Mr Harris appeared on CNN to accuse Mr Massey of lying, claiming he had witnessed the incidents described by the marine, he in turn was challenged by another journalist. Jeff Schmerker, a reporter for The Mountaineer in North Carolina, said Mr Harris told him that he did not see the events with his own eyes. The St Louis Post-Dispatch man was assigned to a different company in the battalion from Mr Massey's.

The sergeant's main charge is not denied by the reporter or the Marine Corps. "Yes, marines killed civilians," said Mr Harris. "I even reported on the shooting and killing of a British TV crew while I was in Iraq." In December 2004, the Marine Corps spokesman at the Pentagon, Major Douglas Powell, told MSNBC: "We're not saying he's lying, but his perception of what the situation was in relation to the rules of engagement, and what was justified, is different than ours."

Yet Mr Harris has contacted several other newspapers that published stories on Mr Massey and asked them to retract their articles publicly. The Sacramento Bee ran an editorial confessing, "It was an error of judgement. Before we published the story, we should have called the Marine Corps for a response."