OCEANSIDE — Several Marines are being held in the brig at Camp Pendleton and several more are restricted to the base pending an investigation in the slaying of a civilian in Iraq and a possible attempt to make him appear to have been an insurgent, Marine Corps officials said.
The inquiry in the April 26 killing in Hamandiya is separate from the investigation of the Nov. 19 slaying of 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha.
But both cases involve the moral, legal and tactical issues of how to treat noncombatants in western Iraq, a complex and chaotic battleground patrolled by Marines.
"Like the commandant of the Marine Corps, Marines aboard Camp Pendleton are concerned regarding allegations emanating from Iraq," Maj. Gen. Richard Natonski, commanding general of the 1st Marine Division, which is based at Camp Pendleton, said in a statement Saturday.
"But we will continue to undergo our extensive training regimen in preparation for future deployments. The Marine Corps prides itself on its history and its demanding moral code."
Marine Commandant Gen. Michael Hagee is in Iraq to lecture Marines on the need to obey the Geneva Convention and other rules about humane treatment of noncombatants. He also plans to visit Camp Pendleton and other bases.
In the Haditha case, an investigation has concluded that Marines killed unarmed civilians, including women and children, in a house-to-house search conducted after an insurgent bomb killed a Marine and injured several others.
Some of the Marines could face murder charges, and others could be charged with dereliction of duty by assisting in a cover-up.
Photographs of the bodies taken by a Marine intelligence unit have convinced investigators that the civilians were defenseless and that some were killed "execution-style," officials close to investigation have said.
In the Hamandiya incident, an Iraqi was allegedly taken from his home and shot to death, officials said.
Troops may have planted an AK-47 and shovel near the body, Marines said, to make it appear that the man was an insurgent placing an improvised explosive device to detonate beneath a military vehicle.
The Marines were brought back from Iraq for the investigation.
Natonski took the unusual step of having some of the Marines kept in the brig "based on information [he] was privy to regarding alleged actions" of the Marines, the statement from the base said.
More than a dozen Marines with the 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment are being investigated in the Hamandiya killing. A dozen with the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment are under suspicion in the Haditha case.
Three or four of the latter, in what the military describes as a "fire team" led by a sergeant, are suspected of firing most of the fatal shots, said officials with knowledge of the investigation, who spoke on condition of anonymity. An Army general's administrative report on the Haditha incident is expected to be completed within days. No timetable has been announced for the Hamandiya investigation.
Marines spending their off-hours in the downtown area of this city beside Camp Pendleton said the incidents had already brought a renewed emphasis on what the Marines called "rules of engagement" in Iraq.
"They told us that they never want this stuff to ever happen again," said Pfc. Hunter Brunsvold, 18, of Mason City, Iowa.
Some Marines said they were told by noncommissioned officers to watch news accounts of the cases.
"Our first sergeant told us to go find out about these things so we know what not to do," said Pfc. Aaron McCune, 23, of Minneapolis.
Still, the Marines said, the public needs to understand the pressures of being on the front lines.
"I think it's unfortunate that Marines were driven to something like that," said Lance Cpl. Miles O'Reilly, 18, of Marin County. "It was out of line and they should be punished, but something must have frustrated them pretty badly to push them over the edge."
With nearly 300 of its Marines killed in Iraq, Camp Pendleton has had more personnel killed there than any other U.S. military base. The Marines being trained for Iraq in the infantry school at Camp Pendleton said they were taught about the Geneva Convention but were also warned that knowing friend from foe in Iraq was difficult.
"The Geneva Convention doesn't really exist over there; we're dealing with terrorists, not an army," said Navy corpsman Ken Pierson, 20, of Milwaukee.
Sgt. Jeremy Herndon, 26, of Christmas Valley, Ore., who has done two tours in Iraq, said he believed the frustration came from fighting "an unseen enemy" that killed by planting roadside bombs and sometimes hid among women and children.
"Some guys get a little too eager," Herndon said. "It's not right and it's not professional, but it happens."