Investigators of Haditha Shootings Look to Exhume Bodies

By Josh White and Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 2, 2006

Criminal investigators are hoping to exhume the bodies of several Iraqi civilians allegedly gunned down by a group of U.S. Marines last year in the city of Haditha, aiming to recover potentially important forensic evidence, according to defense officials familiar with the investigation.

A source close to the inquiry said Naval Criminal Investigative Service officials have interviewed families of the dead several times and have visited the homes where the shootings allegedly occurred to collect as much evidence as possible. Exhuming the bodies could help investigators determine the distance at which shots were fired, the caliber of the bullets and the angles of the shots, possibly crucial details in determining how events unfolded and who might have been involved.

The possible evidence was disregarded at first because the slayings originally were not treated as crimes.

NCIS officials said the Nov. 19 incident was not reported to them as a criminal case until nearly four months later -- on March 12 -- and the failure of the Marine Corps to request assistance from investigators sooner could create legal complexities.

The delay already has presented many hurdles for investigators, who have had to rely on dated information, witnesses and suspects who had months to tailor their stories, and a lack of fairly routine forensic evidence that should have been collected at the time the civilians were killed, according to Defense Department officials, defense attorneys and sources close to the criminal probe.

"We are definitely starting with a full count," said one official close to the investigation, who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to discuss the case. "There's plenty of shoulda, woulda, coulda to go around in this case. We have lots of disadvantages going in, but we will re-create the incident as best we can."

The NCIS is an independent criminal investigative agency that is not in the military chain of command. Its probe has included as many as 50 special agents, forensics investigators and support personnel operating in Iraq and in the United States, the largest homicide investigation of its type since the war in Iraq began in 2003, according to Navy officials.

Ed Buice, a spokesman for the NCIS at the Washington Navy Yard, said yesterday that criminal investigators learned of the Haditha incident on March 12 -- nearly 16 weeks after it occurred -- when the Marine Corps officially requested an investigation. The probe began immediately, and three NCIS agents based in Iraq went to Haditha within 24 hours, Buice said.

"The investigation is labor-intensive, complex and time-consuming," Buice said. "NCIS is committed to following up on any and all tangible leads and evidence."

Buice said the investigation is ongoing and "will remain open until after the findings are adjudicated." While Defense Department officials anticipate potential charges of murder, dereliction of duty and obstruction of justice, the NCIS has not yet reported its findings, and military commanders ultimately will decide what, if any, judicial procedures to initiate.

The NCIS will be looking at the days leading up to the roadside bombing that killed a member of the Kilo Company Marines and allegedly set off an emotion-laced spree of shootings in a series of homes near the explosion. The gruesome death of Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas, 20, of El Paso, Tex., occurred shortly before Marines allegedly shot and killed a number of civilians, including women and children.

Now, officials close to the case said, investigators are starting with the men who allegedly were in the houses when shots were fired and working their way out from there.

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