Bracing For the Reports on Haditha

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Almost nine months since 24 Iraqis, including women and children, were killed in the Iraqi town of Haditha and three months since Congressman John Murtha claimed they had been murdered "in cold blood" by U.S. Marines, what really happened on that fateful morning is still unclear. In fact, as the two separate investigations into the events on November 19, 2005, near completion, the only thing certain about Haditha, which was first brought to light by TIME in March, is that the military at the highest levels is bracing for the findings.

DOD officials tell TIME that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld recently set up a Pentagon task force, which meets once a week, to track Haditha and prepare for the eventual release of the investigations' results. But a Pentagon source familiar with the criminal investigation says that contrary to the suggestions of some media reports Wednesday, there have been no conclusions that the Marines deliberately killed unarmed civilians. This source also says that the bodies of those killed at Haditha have not been exhumed, which makes proving murder "very challenging."

The two investigations into the Haditha incident — where an IED killed one Marine and his unit then killed 24 Iraqi civilians in the hours afterwards — are essentially complete. One, written by Army Maj. Gen. Eldon Bargewell, deals with the reporting up the Marine chain of command after the incident, and will reportedly inflame already touchy relations between the Marines and the Army by seriously criticizing the Marine officers for not initially looking into the incident; many Marines feel the Army is judging them by a higher standard than it judges itself. The other deals with whether criminal charges could be brought.

In the military legal system, it is the commanding general at Camp Pendleton, California, where the unit that is the focus of the Haditha investigations is based, who will decide whether or not to bring criminal charges. But the case may be delayed slightly since one general, Lt. Gen. John Sattler, is being replaced by Lt. Gen. James Mattis and Sattler may not have enough time before he leaves to make a decision on what to charge, if anything, so Mattis would have to start fresh. Both are highly respected officers, and more important, both have served tours in Iraq.

Whatever is decided, Haditha will likely remain a powerful touchstone as the unpopular war grinds on, more U.S. troops and Iraqis die and Congressional elections loom. Nowhere was that more clear than in a Washington, D.C., courthouse this week. That's where lawyers for Marine Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich, the 26-year-old who was the unit leader that day in Haditha, called U.S. Congressman John Murtha a liar. Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat who served as a Marine in Vietnam and who in recent months has become increasingly outspoken in his opposition to the Iraq war, said in May 2006 that based on briefings from the military that Marines in Haditha "overreacted because of the pressure on them and killed innocent civilians in cold blood."

Wuterich, in a 23-page complaint, says Murtha "spread false and malicious lies about SSgt Wuterich and his squad..." and "sought to destroy the reputations of young Marines." The complaint, which asks for a public apology and at least $75,000, also says, "any accusation that the Marines 'executed' civilians or deliberately targeted noncombatants is either a horrendous misunderstanding or intentional lie." The lawyers point out that several members of Congress, from both parties, received briefings on Haditha and in stark contrast to Murtha, all of them refused to speak about the investigation or any of their own conclusions.

The complaint also provides some detail into Wuterich's explanation of the events in Haditha. It says, contrary to Murtha, that the Marines on the ground did follow the rules of engagement, that there was a firefight that day, that the Marines were shot at, and that at least two of the Iraqis had weapons. In response, Congressman Murtha did not back off of his earlier comments and instead said Wuterich was "lashing out."