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Senate panel to hold hearings on atrocity reports

Murtha alleges cover-up after killing of Iraqi civilians in Haditha

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Multiple explanations have been offered as to how these people in Haditha died.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Senate Armed Services Committee will hold hearings into allegations that U.S. Marines committed an atrocity last year in the Iraqi city of Haditha, the panel's chairman said Sunday.

Senior Pentagon sources said Friday that an ongoing investigation supports allegations that Marines killed 24 innocent Iraqi civilians without being provoked.

And Rep. John Murtha, appearing Sunday on ABC's "This Week," alleged a "cover-up" and said the fallout could be "worse than Abu Ghraib."

But Sen. John Warner, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, told ABC that there should be no rush to judgment about the matter.

"We've got to let the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the investigation system, proceed before we reach any conclusions on this matter," Warner said.

The Virginia Republican said the committee would begin hearings "as soon as I cannot interfere with the Uniform Code of Military Justice, as it begins to protect the rights of all those involved."

"This is very serious, but the military are looking at it equally serious," he added.

Warner compared the promised hearings to the Senate inquiry into the abuse of inmates at Iraq's notorious Abu Ghraib prison.

"As chairman of the Armed Services Committee, I'll do exactly what we did with Abu Ghraib," he said. "Those people were before our committee, promptly, raising their right hand, under oath, giving the explanation in full."

The incident in Haditha, a city along the Euphrates River in western Iraq, occurred November 19 after a roadside bomb detonated, killing a Marine.

The Marines originally reported that 15 civilians also died in that blast, but senior Pentagon officials said Friday that a military investigation tends to support allegations that the Americans carried out an unprovoked massacre.

Charges, including murder, could soon be filed against Marines allegedly involved, the Pentagon sources said.

Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat, said reports "from the highest level" found the killings took place in the absence of firing from insurgent forces.

After the roadside bomb went off, "A taxi drives up," Murtha told ABC.

"There's four or five people in it. And they shoot those four or five people, unarmed. And then, they go on a rampage throughout the houses and kill people," said Murtha, a retired Marine colonel who has become a vocal critic of the war in Iraq.

"One woman, as I understand it, in talking to the officials in the Marine Corps, was bending over a child, pleading for mercy, and they shot her in cold blood," Murtha said.

"More disturbing" is that the Iraqi government knew about the killings, "because they made payments to the Iraqis for accidental deaths," said Murtha, a Vietnam combat veteran.

The authorization of payments to families must have been made by a senior official, meaning that high-level authorities would have known about the attack, Murtha said.

"First of all, they tried to say the IED is what killed these people. The next day, there was a team out there investigating, as they always do. And then, nothing happened. Nobody hears about it. They don't tell anybody -- until March, when Time magazine broke the news, nobody realized or recognized what happened."

Murtha said he was trying to figure out who was responsible for what he called a cover-up.

"We don't know how far it goes. I mean, it goes right up the chain of command, right up to [Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman] Gen. [Peter] Pace. When did he know about it? Did he order the cover-up? Who ordered the cover-up?" Murtha said.

"I'm sure he didn't, but who said, 'We're not going to publicize this thing -- we're not even going to investigate it?' Until March, there was no serious investigation."

Though three commanders have been relieved of duty, Murtha said he had been told the actions were not connected to the alleged atrocity.

"They tell me this is dereliction of duty. But we cannot allow something like this to fester. We can't allow it to happen. They've got to put the blame where it goes. And they've got to get this over with," he said.

Murtha said he has done more than anyone "in trying to make sure the troops have what they need. But I will not excuse murder. And this is what happened. There's no question in my mind about it."

For the last several days, the commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Michael Hagee, has been in Iraq talking to the troops about their responsibilities during war.

Acts like the one alleged in Haditha hinder the U.S. effort in Iraq, Murtha said.

"This is the kind of war you have to win the hearts and minds of the people. We can't win this militarily," he said. "It's now got to be a political victory. And we're set back every time something like this happens. This is worse than Abu Ghraib."

Separate accusations surfaced earlier this month that Marines from the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment killed a civilian near Hamandiya, west of Baghdad, on April 26.

Several Marines have been brought back from Iraq and placed in the brig at Camp Pendleton in Southern California during the investigation, a military official told The Associated Press Sunday. (Full story)

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