A senior House Democrat with close ties to the military claimed Wednesday that U.S. Marines wantonly killed innocent Iraqi civilians, including women and children, in an early morning raid last November, buttressing a March report by Time.
"Our troops overreacted because of the pressure on them, and they killed innocent civilians in cold blood," said Jack Murtha of Pennsylvania, a decorated Marine Corps veteran who served in Vietnam and is among the most influential Democratic voices on military matters. "This is going to be a very, very bad thing for the United States."
Asked about his sources during a midday briefing on Iraq policy in the Capitol, Murtha confidently replied, "All the information I get, it comes from the commanders, it comes from people who know what they are talking about." Although Murtha said that he had not read any investigative reports by the military on the incident, he stressed, "It's much worse than reported in Time magazine."
The civilian deaths are under review by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, which is also responsible for the Marine Corps. A Navy spokesman declined to comment on Murtha's claims, saying that the matter is part of an ongoing inquiry. He would also not comment on when the investigation into the incident would be completed.
In March, Time described an incident in the western Iraqi town of Haditha -- the worst alleged case of U.S. troops deliberately killing civilians in Iraq. Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas, 20, was killed in the early morning of Nov. 19, 2005, by a roadside explosive device. In the hours that followed, Marines searched three houses, killing a total of 23 people. According to Time, the Marine Corps' initial report claimed that 15 civilians had died in the same blast that killed Terrazas -- and another eight insurgents were killed after a subsequent firefight with Marines.
But Murtha contended Wednesday that the military's initial report was wrong. "There was no firefight," he said. "There was no IED [improvised explosive device] that killed these people."
Last month, the Marine Corps relieved of command three officers who oversaw the military unit responsible for the Iraqi deaths at Haditha -- Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment.
Murtha, widely known as a foreign-policy hawk, grabbed the national spotlight last fall when he suddenly called for the orderly withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. His press briefing Wednesday was a six-month follow-up to that initial call for withdrawal. The Pennsylvania Democrat argued that part of the responsibility for the Haditha killings lay with the Pentagon leadership, who had stretched soldiers too thin. "These guys are under tremendous strain -- more strain than I can conceive of -- and this strain has caused them to crack under situations like this," Murtha said.
The psychological strain Murtha described has been well documented. Veterans describe the violence of war as having a numbing effect on soldiers, making it possible to carry out otherwise unthinkable acts. This is especially true when a fellow soldier has been killed. "Once you reach that point, all sorts of restrictions you may place on yourself are removed," says Rion Causey, a medic in the infamous Army platoon known as Tiger Force, which may have killed as many as several hundred unarmed civilians in the central highlands of South Vietnam in 1967. Causey did not participate in the atrocities.
Murtha visited the Haditha region in August, three months before the incident. According to Murtha, a U.S. general there said at the time, "I don't have enough troops to do my mission."