A Shot Seen Round The World

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FLASH FIRE: A Marine trains his rifle on a wounded Iraqi and fires. “He’s dead now,” an unidentified Marine says in video taken by reporter Sites

Rules of engagement. That's code for what U.S. soldiers are allowed to do on the battlefield, and it's never simple. So when troops prepped for the invasion of Fallujah, a city filled with rebels without uniforms, their commanders warned them they could shoot only armed men. But the brass also told them they could shoot first and ask questions later. Maddeningly, both orders made sense, depending, as the worn caveat goes, on the circumstances.

On Nov. 13, a freelance photojournalist working for NBC videotaped a Marine shooting first, apparently killing a wounded Iraqi lying on the floor of a Fallujah mosque. Three days later, the footage aired around the world — and the damage was done.

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At the Pentagon, military officials say the video lacks enough context to draw any firm conclusion about whether the Marine had legitimately defended himself or committed a war crime. But several officers interviewed by TIME concede that the images look bad and could indeed lead to a court-martial. In the battle for Fallujah, during which 51 Americans, 8 Iraqi allies and an estimated 1,200 insurgents have been killed, it was a propaganda coup for the other side. "I'm upset if this Marine murdered in cold blood," says Bernard Trainor, a retired Marine three-star general who faced combat in Korea and Vietnam. "But I also feel a great deal of sympathy for him." In the streets of Iraq, the verdict is already clear. "Shame on America," says Laila Hamid, a Fallujah-born Baghdad secretary. "All their lectures on democracy and human rights ... and then they show us what is really in their hearts."

Aside from the public-opinion debacle, questions still outnumber answers when it comes to the circumstances of the shooting. The bare facts are these: a unit of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment went to the mosque with cameraman Kevin Sites in tow. The mosque had been taken the day before by other Marines, but Sites' unit had heard that insurgents had reoccupied it. As the Marines approached, shots rang out, but they could not tell if the shots had come from the mosque. The widely aired footage shows the Marines entering the mosque, their strides confident but their voices clenched with anxiety. Inside, they see five wounded Iraqis lying on the floor. One voice says that these are the same men wounded the day before. Suddenly a Marine gestures toward one of the Iraqis and yells, "He's f____ing faking he's dead!" Another Marine responds, "Yeah, he's breathing." The injured Iraqi did not appear to be armed or threatening in any way, Sites reported later. "In fact there were no weapons visible in the room, except those carried by the Marines." But without pause, a Marine in the camera's eye raises his rifle and shoots the Iraqi in the upper body, splattering his blood against the wall. "He's dead now," a Marine says.

Afterward, off camera, Sites informed the Marine he had killed a wounded prisoner. The Marine replied, according to Sites: "I didn't know, sir. I didn't know." Sites reported that three other injured Iraqis may also have been shot in the mosque that day. The corpses of four Iraqis have been shipped to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware for autopsies, and the Marine shooter in the video, who has not been identified, has been removed from the battlefield. Marines in Fallujah have launched an investigation into the shooting.

Sites, the civilian who knows the most about what happened that day, has said little since his initial reports aired on NBC. A network spokeswoman says he expects to be deposed. But three days before the shooting, Sites, 42, an experienced war correspondent, had posted a telling dispatch on his weblog. "The Marines are operating with liberal rules of engagement," he wrote. As the unit entered Fallujah, a staff sergeant announced that "everything to the West is weapons free." That meant, Sites explained, the Marines could "shoot whatever they see." Many of the Americans were grieving and exhausted, he wrote. "Almost to a man, the Marines I'm embedded with have all lost friends in this protracted war of attrition. They are eager 'to get some,' to pay [the enemy] back for the car bombs and improvised explosive devices that have killed or maimed so many of their brother 'Devil Dogs.'"

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