CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. (Reuters) - The U.S. Navy censured three Marine officers on Wednesday for failing to investigate promptly the 2005 killing of 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha, a move that could end their careers.
On the same day, a military tribunal at Camp Pendleton heard evidence against the alleged ringleader in the Haditha killings, including testimony that a "pink mist" of blood erupted from heads of victims in a case that could bring a penalty of life in prison.
The Haditha killings followed a number of abuses by U.S. forces in Iraqi towns and at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad that sparked worldwide outrage and damaged the image of the U.S. military.
Iraqi witnesses say U.S. troops massacred two dozen unarmed men, women and children in Haditha in retaliation for the death of a popular Marine.
In Washington, the Secretary of the Navy handed down a secretarial letter of censure, the most severe form of censure, against Maj. Gen. Richard Huck, Col. Stephen Davis and Col. Robert Sokoloski.
"The essential issue was that the incident occurred at Haditha on 19 November, which resulted in the death of 24 Iraqis, and no investigation was initiated immediately," a senior Marine official said, adding that the first investigation only began in February 2006.
The censure could end the officers' military careers by keeping them from promotion. Their military ranks also could be reduced when they retire because of the censures, meaning a reduction in retirement pay.
Lt. Gen. James Mattis, a senior Marine general looking into the officers' conduct, concluded that they did not intend to cover up the case or break military laws.
"He did determine that their actions, or inactions, demonstrated lack of due diligence on the part of senior commanders and staff," the Marine Corps said in a statement.
Mattis will also determine whether to try alleged Haditha ringleader Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, 27, who is charged with murdering 18 Iraqi civilians in Haditha after a roadside bomb killed a member of his Camp Pendleton-based unit.
At an evidence hearing in the case, Trent Graviss, who served under Wuterich, testified that he saw his leader shooting at five Iraqis near a car after the blast.
"I couldn't see the individuals in the pink mist," he said, referring to a spray of blood from the victims. "I assume it was from the head shot; most bleeding comes from the head, sir."
Graviss also said the Iraqi men were not running away as suggested by the defense. "They weren't very far from the car," he said. "If they were running they would be further apart because you can't shoot everyone at once."
No weapons were found after the corpses and car were searched.
A Navy criminal investigator testified that the Iraqis were also shot at from a second location and at least some were fired on from close range to ensure they were dead. Special agent Thomas Brady said the Iraqis were not fleeing.
Eight Marines were charged in the case. The evidentiary hearing against Wuterich may conclude on Thursday. Charges against three men were dismissed and four others must still be dealt with.
Lawyers for the defendants say the civilians died during a chaotic house-to-house battle in the western Iraqi town.
Additional reporting by Kristin Roberts and Andrew Gray in Washington