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The ghosts of Haditha

Editor's note: The following is a summary of this week's Time magazine cover story.

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(Time.comexternal link) -- The killings of 24 Iraqis one morning last November may mark a terrible turning point in America's already shaky presence in Iraq.

Like the Abu Ghraib prison scandal before it, what happened at Haditha threatens to become one of the war's signature debacles, an alleged atrocity committed by a small group of service members that comes to symbolize the enterprise's larger costs.

The incident, first reported by Time in March, has sparked two major military investigations -- one into the possibility that the Marines deliberately murdered unarmed Iraqis and another into a possible cover-up that followed.

It has flung open the door to reports, some real, others already discredited, of other civilians' being targeted in battle. And it led in part to the startling charge by the Iraqi prime minister that such attacks have become a "regular occurrence." Once again, the Bush administration finds itself on the defensive about a war that is now entering its 40th unrelenting month. (Watch how Haditha has fueled critics of Defense Sec. Donald Rumsfeld -- 2:17)

A knowledgeable congressional source monitoring the Haditha probes says congressional aides are being told by Marine officers in the Pentagon that the number of Marines who may be charged with murder is small.

But the source speculates that the total number who may be charged with crimes ranging from murder to aiding in the attack or trying to cover it up could be as high as 10, according to Marines who have talked to officials at the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, which is conducting the inquiry into the killings.

A team of investigators from the investigative service has already spent weeks in Haditha unraveling the events of November 19.

Khaled Raseef, a spokesman for the victims' relatives and an uncle of some of the children who were killed, says investigative service agents have visited the houses attacked by the Marines 15 times, taken survivors to one of the homes and performed a re-enactment of the unit's movements.

A U.S. military source in Iraq told Time that investigators have placed the noncommissioned officer in charge of the unit that day, Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, 26, in at least two of the houses where the Marines killed Iraqis.

Wuterich, who is based at California's Camp Pendleton, has not been relieved of duty, say military officials. His lawyer did not return telephone calls.

The Marines at the center of the controversy belonged to Kilo Company, which had seen some of the ugliest fighting in the post-invasion period and then late last year had the job of trying to hold Haditha, a town of 90,000 riddled with insurgents.

According to Lucian Read -- a freelance photographer who has spent 13 months in Iraq, five of them with Kilo Company -- Kilo had drawn a short stick in the battle for Falluja in 2004, enduring days of street-to-street and sometimes house-to-house fighting.

During an operation that came to be known as the Hell House, a Kilo unit was ambushed inside a house by half a dozen insurgents armed with machine guns and grenades; one Marine died, and several others were wounded. Trapped inside, with the enemy in the adjoining rooms, the Marines finally blew the house up in order to kill the enemy and make their escape.

After pulling out of Falluja, Kilo returned home, but by last summer it was gearing up for another tour in Iraq. The unit remained about 65 percent intact from the year before.

In October it moved as part of a roughly 900-man Marine battalion into Haditha, a Euphrates River-valley farm town that had been in insurgents' hands for half a year. At first, the Marines encountered almost no resistance.

According to Read, Kilo took up residence in a municipal building as other Marine companies spread out around town. But over time, the other units were called to duty elsewhere, and Kilo was left to pacify the city on its own.

Read, 31, reports that Kilo was the "most human" of the numerous units he was embedded with. "They were never abusive," he said. Most of Kilo's members had at least one Iraqi tour under their belt, Read noted; several had two, and one was working on his third.

But at some point, the demands of waging a long, hot guerrilla war with no end in sight can wear down the very best warrior.

Click hereexternal link for the entire cover story on Time

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