The Haditha Scandal's Other Casualty

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REUTERS

Iraqis carry a body, which was reportedly loaded onto a truck with bodies of a family shot dead in their home in Haditha, Iraq, this March.

On Thursday night, at his joint press conference with Tony Blair, President Bush said that the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib was the greatest mistake the U.S. has made in the war of Iraq: "I think the biggest mistake that's happened so far, at least from our country's involvement, is Abu Ghraib. We've been paying for that for a long period of time."

The emerging Haditha scandal may come to eclipse that. As first reported by TIME back in March, there is increasing evidence that a small number of Marines carried out unlawful and unwarranted killings of civilians in Western Iraq, including the Sunni-majority city of Haditha. On Friday, the New York Times reported that preliminary results of a military inquiry showed that the civilians killed in the city last November had not died from a makeshift bomb, as the Pentagon had initially stated, nor in a crossfire with insurgents, as was later announced. One of the most damning pieces of evidence investigators have in their possession, according to a U.S. military source in Iraq, are personal photos, taken immediately after the killings, by a marine who emailed a snapshot back to a friend in the U.S.

The Marines have refused to comment on the specifics of the investigation, but on Saturday a Public Affairs Officer gave TIME's Sally B. Donnelly their first official statement related to the Haditha controversy:

"The recent serious allegations concerning the actions of Marines in combat have caused serious concern at the highest levels of the Marine Corps. As the Commandant has written, those allegations should concern all Marines. That said, the investigations are on-going, therefore any further comment at this time would be inappropriate. All Marines are trained in the Law of Armed Conflict and our core values of honor, courage and commitment. We take allegations of wrong-doing by Marines very seriously and are committed to thoroughly investigating such allegations. We also pride ourselves on holding our Marines to the highest levels of accountability and standards. The Marines in Iraq are focused on their mission. They are working hard on doing the right thing in a complex and dangerous environment. It is important to remember that the vast majority of Marines today perform magnificently on and off the battlefield. Tens of thousands have served honorably and with courage in Iraq and Afghanistan."

The Haditha episode took place last Nov. 19, after a roadside bomb blew up a Marine humvee, killing Lance Corporal Miguel (T.J.) Terrazas, 20, from El Paso, Texas. According to numerous witnesses, some of Terrazas' fellow Marines went on a rampage after the killing, slaughtering civilians, including women and children. In January, the Pentagon began an investigation; a second probe into whether there was a cover up of the alleged massacre is also underway. In recent days, Marine Corps Commandant Michael Hagee, has flown to Iraq to deliver speeches to troops reemphasizing that they must adhere to international law.

The possibility of a U.S. massacre of Iraqi civilians could have major ramifications. It could further diminish support for the United States through the Arab and Muslim world, where America is already held in notoriously low regard. And the massacre could accelerate American opinion against the war. During the Vietnam War, the My Lai massacre [http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,901621,00.html] of what may have been as many as hundreds of South Vietnamese civilians helped turn the tide against the war. In that case, initial Pentagon reports similarly dismissed the possibility of a civilian massacre.

Although the numbers of dead in Haditha come nowhere near My Lai, in an era of instant communications, the impact for the United States could be far worse. And given that the revelations of the possible massacre comes as Saddam Hussein is standing trial for ordering the massacre of Shi'ites when he was leader of Iraq, the timing couldn't be much worse.

In the original version of this story, TIME reported that "one of the most damning pieces of evidence investigators have in their possession, John Sifton of Human Rights Watch told Time's Tim McGirk, is a photo, taken by a Marine with his cell phone that shows Iraqis kneeling and thus posing no threat before they were shot." While Sifton did tell TIME that there was photographic evidence, taken by Marines, he had only heard about the specific content of the photos from reports done by NBC, and had no firsthand knowledge. TIME regrets the error.