The growing evidence of US war crimes in Iraq means the country faces weeks and months of distressing revelations and shaming court cases that could turn public opinion more decisively against a conflict in which 2,500 American servicemen have died and which has no end in sight.
The issue has been simmering since the first public word emerged of a possible massacre followed by a cover-up of Iraqi civilians by US Marines last November. But it has been brought to boiling point by the accusation from Nuri al-Maliki, the Iraqi Prime Minister, of "daily" violence against unarmed civilians by the US military.
"They run them over and leave them, or they kill anyone suspicious. This cannot be accepted," Mr Maliki said in comments remarkable from a leader whose government's fragile grip on the country would be impossible without the presence of 130,000 US troops on its soil. He demanded full access to US files on the cases so that Iraqis could pursue their own investigations.
That may or may not take place. Far earlier, however, more wrenching details of the three cases now making headlines will be known to the American public. Lawyers say the first criminal charges are likely as early as Monday, when seven marines are expected to be formally accused of conspiracy, kidnapping and murder in the case of the death of an unarmed civilian in April in Hamandiyah, a village in Anbar province, west of Baghdad.
After allegedly killing the man, the marines are said to have planted evidence to suggest that he was preparing a roadside bomb, including a shovel, explosives and an AK-47 rifle to make it appear he had been armed.
Within days, the results may also be known of an internal inquiry led by an army major-general into a possible cover-up of the worst incident the fatal shootings of two dozen Iraqi civilians, including women and children, at Haditha in north-western Iraq on 19 November 2005. The alleged rampage is held to be an act of revenge by a marine unit after one of their number was killed in a bomb explosion.
That is only one of two investigations into the affair. The other, conducted by the Navy Criminal Investigation Service, could lead to charges of premeditated murder and dereliction of duty against several marines.
But this inquiry only began in March, after information presented to the military in January by Time magazine, contradicting the first version of events by a marines spokesman, that claimed 15 civilians and a US soldier had been killed by a roadside bomb. Subsequent forensic evidence has shown that the victims were killed by bullets, fired from comparatively close range. The question now is whether the attempted cover-up extended only to the handful of marines on the spot, or involved higher ranking officers as well.
In the third incident, Iraqi police alleged US soldiers rounded up and killed 11 civilians in Ishaqi, north of Baghdad, on 15 March. Their claims were supported by video footage obtained by the BBC. The Pentagon launched an investigation. Last night, it announced only four people had died, and exonerated US forces.
Now Congress is to join the fray. Senator John Warner has promised hearings on Haditha and probably the other incidents by the Armed Services Committee, which he chairs, while a similar inquiry will almost certainly be launched in the House. Senior officers and civilian officials, perhaps including the Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, will be called to testify.
But Mr Warner has made it clear that the hearings may not be held for several weeks, until the various military investigations are completed. Their scope will also be limited if, as expected, criminal charges are levelled in the various cases.
The episode at Haditha presents special problems since it happened so many months ago. According to The Washington Post yesterday, US investigators want to exhume the victims' bodies to collect possibly vital evidence of exactly how they died.
The claims of a cover-up may be scarcely less embarrassing than those of the atrocities themselves. Only low-ranking officers faced criminal charges as a result of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. There are signs that much the same could happen now, even though the promotion of a marine general has been put on hold until the affair has been cleared up. All along, the approach of the Bush administration has been to place the blame on a few "bad apples," and yesterday Mr Rumsfeld was following that line.
How Haditha has unfolded
* 19 NOVEMBER: L/Cpl Miguel Terrazas killed by a roadside bomb in Haditha. 24 Iraqi civilians are shot dead in three houses and a car. US army claims 15 civilians are killed in the roadside blast.
* 20 NOVEMBER: A local journalist records footage of the massacre showing bullet-riddled women and children still in their nightclothes.
* JANUARY: A human rights group passes the tape on to Time magazine who forward it to the US military.
* FEBRUARY: US military investigators find discrepancies in the army explanation, but the official account is barely changed.
* 9 MARCH: Marine commander orders a criminal inquiry.
* 19 MARCH: Time accuses the Marines of murdering 24, including women and children, in revenge for their comrade's death.
* 7 APRIL: Three officers in charge of troops in Haditha are reassigned after being stripped of their command.
* 17 MAY: Democrat Congressman John Murta accuses the Marines of killing innocent civilians "in cold blood".
* LATE MAY: Reports suggest the US military is likely to charge those involved with murder and that the Pentagon agrees with Time's account.
* 31 MAY: Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki announces Iraq is to launch its own inquiry.
* 1 JUNE: Bush vows to make the Haditha investigation public.Reuse content