November 16, 2004
BAGHDAD, Iraq - The U.S. military said Tuesday it is investigating the videotaped fatal shooting of a wounded man by a U.S. Marine in a mosque in Fallujah. Iraqis condemned the act as "cowardice" and "something forbidden in Islam."
Investigators will determine whether the Marine acted in self-defense against what a spokesman described as an "enemy combatant."
The dramatic footage was taken Saturday by pool correspondent Kevin Sites of NBC television, whose report said the man who was killed didn't appear to be armed or threatening in any way, with no weapons visible in the mosque. The slain man was among a group of men wounded in fighting a day earlier at the mosque and left there. Three others in the group were also shot again Saturday by Marines, Sites said.
The Marine involved in the fatal shooting was withdrawn from the battlefield pending the results of the investigation, the U.S. military said.
"We follow the law of armed conflict and hold ourselves to a high standard of accountability," said Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, commanding general of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. "The facts of this case will be thoroughly pursued to make an informed decision and to protect the rights of all persons involved."
The Marine statement said the investigators would look at "an allegation of the unlawful use of force in the death of an enemy combatant."
"The purpose of this investigation is to determine whether the Marine acted in self-defense, violated military law or failed to comply with the Law of Armed Conflict," it said.
Florian Westphal, a spokesman for the International Committee for the Red Cross, said he couldn't say for sure whether the men in the mosque were prisoners or not.
"The fact that was reported was that he was wounded. But whether he was already a prisoner or not was not clear to me," Westphal said.
"We cannot, on the basis of TV images - no matter how disturbing and disconcerting they are - arrive at a judgment about an incident. We were not on the spot so we cannot be aware of all the circumstances of this incident," he said.
"It's clearly recognized that people in combat situations are under enormous strain," Westphal said
But, he added, the Geneva Conventions are clear: Protection of wounded combatants once they are out of action is a basic rule.
Iraqi Interior Minister Falah Hassan al-Nagib said that while "killing a wounded person is rejected by us," the militants in Fallujah were responsible for their own brutal acts against Iraqis and foreigners, and were "killers and criminals."
Footage of the shooting was aired on Al-Jazeera television. Iraqis interviewed Tuesday in Baghdad harshly condemned the killing.
"It is something forbidden in Islam, an American killed an unarmed Iraqi prisoner inside a mosque," said Abdul-Sattar Naji.
Another Iraqi in Baghdad, Tareq Ali, called it "a criminal act" that "indicates the cowardice of the soldier who did that. The injured should be treated according to the law of wars."
Omar Ragib of the Sunni clerical Association of Muslim Scholars, said American troops "pay no heed" to the injured, the unarmed and the sanctity of mosques.
"We saw the troops entered the mosque after they shelled it," he said. "And we saw the effect of bombardment on the mosque walls."
U.S. and Iraqi commanders say gunmen frequently use mosques as refuges or fire on troops from the buildings.
The incident played out as the Marines 3rd Battalion, 1st Regiment, came to the unidentified Fallujah mosque Saturday. Sites was embedded with the unit.
A day earlier, a different Marine unit came under fire from the same mosque. Those Marines stormed the building, killing 10 men and wounding five, Sites said. The Marines said the fighters in the mosque Friday were armed with rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47 rifles. The Marines treated the wounded, he reported, left them behind and continued on Friday with their drive to retake Fallujah.
The same five wounded men were still in the mosque on Saturday, when a another Marine unit - accompanied by Sites - came to the mosque, Sites said.
On the video, as the camera moved into the mosque Saturday, a Marine can be heard shouting obscenities in the background, yelling that one of the men was only pretending to be dead.
"He's (expletive) faking he's dead!"
"Yeah, he's breathing," another Marine is heard saying.
"He's faking he's (expletive) dead!" the first Marine says.
The video then showed a Marine raising his rifle toward an Iraqi lying on the floor of the mosque. The video shown by NBC and provided to the network pool was blacked out at that point and did not show the bullet hitting the man. But a rifle shot could be heard.
"He's dead now," a Marine is heard saying.
The blacked out portion of the videotape, provided later to Associated Press Television News and other members of the network pool, showed the bullet striking the first man in the upper body, possibly the head. His blood splatters on the wall behind him and his body goes limp.
It is unclear from the footage whether the body was moving before the shot. The only movement that can be seen is the body flinching at the impact of the bullets. Sites' report said the slain man didn't appear to be armed or threatening in any way, and there were no arms visible in the room.
The camera then shows two Americans pointing weapons at another man lying motionless. But one of the Marines steps back as the man stretches out his hand, motioning that he is alive. The Marines did not open fire on the man.
Sites reported that a Marine in the same unit had been killed a day earlier when he tended to the booby-trapped dead body of an insurgent.
NBC reported that the Marine seen shooting the wounded combatant had himself been shot in the face the day before, but quickly returned to duty.
The Third Geneva Convention, the section of the 1949 treaty that applies to prisoners of war, says "persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat (out of combat) by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely."
It adds that "the wounded and sick shall be collected and cared for."
The judge advocate general heading the investigation, Lt. Col. Bob Miller, was asked by NBC News whether it was possible the Marine was acting in self-defense.
"The policy of the rules of engagement authorize the Marines to use force when presented with a hostile act or hostile intent," Miller said. "So they would have to be using force in self-defense, yes."
"Any wounded - in this case insurgents - who don't pose a threat would not be considered hostile," said Miller.
Charles Heyman, a senior defense analyst with Jane's Consultancy Group in Britain, defended the Marine's actions, saying the wounded man could have been concealing a firearm or grenade.
"In a combat infantry soldier's training, he is always taught that his enemy is at his most dangerous when he is severely wounded," Heyman said.
If the injured man makes even the slightest move, "in my estimation they would be justified in shooting him."
In the pool video, gunfire can be heard from inside the mosque Saturday as the unit accompanied by Sites approached. At the entrance, Marines who were already in the building emerge. They are asked by an approaching Marine lieutenant if there were insurgents inside and if the Marines had shot any of them. A Marine can be heard responding affirmatively. The lieutenant then asks if they were armed, and the Marine shrugs.
Sites' account said the wounded men were shot again by the Marines on Saturday.
The videotape showed two of the wounded propped against the wall. Sites said they were bleeding to death. According to his report, a third wounded man appeared already dead, while a fourth was severely wounded but breathing. The fifth was covered by a blanket but did not appear to have been shot again after the Marines returned. It was the fourth man who was shown being shot.
Al-Jazeera aired the unabridged version of the shooting footage, complete with a name visible on one Marine's backpack and the faces of the Marines, which were not shown on U.S. networks. There was no immediate comment on the tape from Middle Eastern governments because of a Muslim holiday.
Fallujah mosque shooting tape, complete with one name visible on a backpack and the faces of the Marines, which were not shown on U.S. networks. There was no immediate comment on the tape from Middle Eastern governments because of a Muslim holiday.
The CNN broadcast of the pictures obscured parts of the video that could identify the Marines involved.
NBC's Robert Padavick told members of the U.S. television pool that the Pentagon had ordered NBC and other pool members to make sure the Marine's identity was hidden because military authorities "are anticipating a criminal investigation as a result of this incident and do not want to implicate anybody ahead of that."
NBC spokeswoman Allison Gollust said the network did not show the man being shot because of its "graphic nature."