The Haditha Massacre: A Congressman Apologizes

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Congressman John Kline, a Republican from Minnesota, was in the forefront of legislators this spring who expressed outrage at the incident in Haditha, Iraq, where 24 civilians were allegedly killed by U.S. Marines in November 2005. "This was a small number of Marines who fired directly on civilians and killed them," said Kline, after being briefed by Marine Corps officials. "This going to be an ugly story."

But this week Kline backed off considerably from his earlier comments. Prompted by the threat of a civil lawsuit against him by Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, the Marine who is a focus of the investigation, he said in a written statement: "I want to express my sincere apology to the Marines of the 1st Squad, 3rd Platoon, Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, and especially SSgt Frank D. Wuterich. On November 19, 2005, in Haditha, Iraq, they were involved in an incident that resulted in the deaths of Iraqi civilians. Some news outlets have promoted incomplete statements attributed to me that gave the false impression that I have concluded those involved committed unlawful acts.

"I have the utmost faith that the Defense Department is fully investigating the matter and the appropriate decisions will be reached," Kline continued. "Should charges be brought against these Marines, and I do not know if they will be, the involved Marines deserve to be considered absolutely innocent until proven guilty. "

TIME was the first to report that Iraqi civilians in Haditha had not been killed by an Improvised Explosive Defice (IED), as first reported by the military, but in fact by Marines after an IED had gone off and killed one of their comrades, Lance Corporal Miguel Terrazas. The Marine Corps still has not officially acknowledged what all sides now accept as accurate: that the Iraqis that day were not killed by an IED. Marine public affairs officers argue that since the investigation is still under way it would not be productive to issue an accurate press release until it is complete.

The Pentagon launched two investigations into the Haditha incident — one into possible criminal acts and the other into the alleged failures of the chain of command to examine exactly what took place in Haditha that day. The two investigations are expected to be finished in early September, and criminal charges, say sources familiar with aspects of the investigation, are likely.

Yet the slow course of the investigation has muted some of the fury that reached a peak last May when Congressman John Murtha, a Democrat from Pennsylvania with longtime ties to the military who has turned against the Iraq War, claimed that the Marines in Haditha had "killed in cold blood." Murtha too is facing a civil lawsuit for defamation from SSgt Wuterich, but he has not backed off his remarks.

Kline was unavailable to elaborate on his statement, or say whether it indicated any fresh doubts about the allegations surrounding Haditha. But it may be a sign of the risks that candidates could face in criticizing U.S. troops as a midterm election approaches. "As a retired Colonel in the U.S. Marines," said Kline, who faces Coleen Rowley, the FBI whistleblower, this November, "I am especially proud of the sacrifices our men and women make day in and day out, especially in combat situations. And as a Marine Officer I would never want to publicly insinuate, implicitly or explicitly, that I have prejudged what took place that day on the battlefield or afterwards."