President Bush said Wednesday he was troubled by allegations that U.S. Marines had killed unarmed Iraqi civilians and that, "If in fact laws were broken, there will be punishment."
It was Mr. Bush's first public comment on allegations that Marines killed about two dozen unarmed Iraqis in the western city of Haditha last November.
Mr. Bush said he had discussed Haditha with Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "He's a proud Marine. And nobody is more concerned about these allegations than the Marine Corps. The Marine Corps is full of honorable people who understand the rules of war."
"If in fact these allegations are true," Mr. Bush said, "the Marine Corps will work hard to make sure that that culture, that proud culture, will be reinforced. And that those who violated the law, if they did, will be punished."
CBS News correspondent David Martin reports that Pentagon officials say photos taken by Marines leave no doubt women, children and unarmed men were shot to death — some of them as they lay in bed; others as they were kneeling.
Suzie Briones said her son Ryan took the pictures. "They numbered the bodies on the forehead, and so all the bodies were numbered and Ryan had to take an individual picture of everything," Briones said.
The president was asked about the Iraq allegations during an Oval Office photo opportunity with the president of Rwanda.
"I am troubled by the initial news stories," Mr. Bush said. "I'm mindful that there's a thorough investigation going on. If in fact, laws were broken, there will be punishment."
Pentagon investigations into the shooting deaths of Iraqi civilians are focused on about a dozen enlisted Marines and do not target their commanding officers, the lawyer for one of the officers said Tuesday.
The investigations of up to two dozen killings and whether Marines covered them up are focused on the troops who were in a four-vehicle convoy hit by a roadside bomb last Nov. 19 in the western Iraqi city of Haditha, attorney Paul Hackett said.
The highest-ranking Marine targeted by the investigations is a staff sergeant who led the convoy, said Hackett, a Marine reservist and Iraqi war veteran who last year narrowly lost a special election for a U.S. House seat in Ohio.
The troops are from Kilo Company, part of Camp Pendleton's 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment. Hackett represents Capt. James Kimber, one of three battalion officers relieved of command last month.
"My purpose is to separate his name from the alleged war crimes that took place," Hackett told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "He's not under investigation for anything related to what has played out in the press."
Kimber, who was nominated for a Bronze Star for valor in Haditha, was relieved of command because his subordinates used profanity, removed sunglasses and criticized the performance of Iraqi security services during an interview with Britain's Sky News TV, according to Hackett.
The Pentagon has named two others who were relieved of command: Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani, the battalion's commander, and Capt. Lucas McConnell, who commanded Kilo Company. Hackett does not represent either man but said neither was present for the shootings and he believes neither man is a target of the investigations.
McConnell refused to speak with an AP reporter who visited his home near Camp Pendleton on Monday night.
The details of what happened in Haditha are still murky. What is known is that a bomb rocked a military convoy and left one Marine dead. Marines then shot and killed unarmed civilians in a taxi at the scene and went into two homes and shot other people, according to Rep. John Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat and decorated war veteran who has been briefed by military officials.
The Marine Corps had initially attributed 15 civilian deaths to the car bombing and a firefight with insurgents, eight of whom the Marines reported had been killed. And lawyers for the Marines say they were doing what they were supposed to — go after whoever planted the bomb, Martin reports.
White House press secretary Tony Snow said Tuesday that President Bush was briefed about the killings by National Security Adviser Steve Hadley early this year when Time magazine began asking questions about the incident.
"The president also is allowing the chain of command do what it's supposed to do over at Department of Defense, which is to complete an investigation," he said.
Snow also said he has been assured by the Pentagon that "all the details" will be given to the public once the investigation is over. "We'll have a picture of what happened," Snow said.
In his first statement on the case, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Tuesday expressed remorse over the deaths.
"We emphasize that our forces, that multinational forces will respect human rights, the rights of the Iraqi citizen," al-Maliki said through an interpreter in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp. "It is not justifiable that a family is killed because someone is fighting terrorists."
The mother of a Marine who witnessed the horrors, told CBS News' The Early Show her son will never be the same.
"This is war. This is fire. My kid has seen more than I will ever see in a lifetime. And it's not things that you want him to see," Susie Briones said.
Briones is talking about her son, Lance Cpl. Ryan Briones, who served two tours in Iraq. Last fall, Ryan Briones was assigned to photograph and bag bodies of Iraqis, including women and children, killed in Haditha, reports CBS News correspondent Hattie Kauffman.
"Brian had to take an individual picture of everything, and the biggest thing is the children," Susie Briones said. "They pick up bodies all the time. But picking up this little girl's body and having her brain splattered on his boots is what affected him the most."
The Marines were on a house-to-house search after a roadside bomb had just killed Briones' best friend, Lance Cpl. T.J. Terraza.
"He described T.J. as his arm on one end and his face blown up and his body in half," Briones said.
Terraza's uncle doubts that any Marines engaged in revenge killing.
"They don't kill innocents," said Luis Terraza. They only defend themselves and try to prevent others from getting killed."
Congressman Murtha claims the military is involved in a cover-up of the incident.
"I won't excuse these kinds of things. I won't excuse the people of Abu Ghraib and I don't excuse what happened over at Haditha," Murtha said.
But Sen. John Warner, R-Va., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, disagrees.
"I do not use the word cover-up until those investigations hit my desk," Warner said.
In fact, the Pentagon has launched two investigations.
"One is to find out what happened. The other is to find out why did it take us so long to find out what happened," Gen. Peter Pace, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Early Show on Monday. But as Martin reports, the probe is far from over. Pentagon officials estimate it will take another six to eight weeks.
Meanwhile, Briones' mother claims the double trauma of seeing his friend killed and the Iraqi deaths has left her son with nightmares.
"'Get down, get down, get out of the way. They're shooting bombs. They're shooting bombs,' he yells this out loud in the car," she says.
Within days of returning home from Iraq, Ryan Briones was arrested for stealing a pickup truck, driving drunk and crashing it into a house.
"He wasn't in his right mind," his mother says.
Briones is now back at Camp Pendleton, and T.J. Terrazza has been buried.