WASHINGTON -- The U.S. military has opened a formal investigation into whether Marines in eastern Afghanistan killed noncombatants after a suicide bomber detonated his explosive-laden car near their convoy on March 4, Marine officials said yesterday.
As many as 10 Afghans were reportedly killed and 34 wounded after the bombing, in Nangarhar province.
Army Maj. Gen. Francis H. Kearney III, the commander of Special Operations troops in the Middle East and Central Asia, opened the investigation and ordered the Marines involved to remain in Afghanistan until it is complete, a spokesman, Lt. Col. Lou J. Leto, said.
Marine officials would not say how many Marines were under investigation or had been ordered to stay in Afghanistan.
The rest of the unit, a 120-Marine company on its first deployment, has been ordered out of Afghanistan, Leto said, because the episode had impaired its ability to operate. The company is part of the 2nd Marine Special Operations Battalion based at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
"The relationship you have with the local people while conducting counterinsurgency operations is very important," Leto said, "and because the perceptions damaged that, it probably degraded the unit's ability to fulfill those kinds of missions. So the general felt it was best to move them out of that area."
U.S. military officials said shortly after the bombing that civilians had been caught in cross-fire between the Marines and insurgents who opened fire after the attack.
But hundreds of Afghans protested afterward, saying the Marines had fired on bystanders and civilian vehicles. The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, condemned the deaths.
"We take any allegation of civilian killings seriously," said Leto, explaining that both decisions - to open an investigation and to redeploy out of Afghanistan - came quickly after the ambush.
An investigating officer will make recommendations to Kearney about whether disciplinary action should be taken against Marines involved, including whether courts-martial may be required.
The withdrawal of the company is a setback for the Marine Special Operations Command, which was formed last year and is not due to reach full operational status until September 2008.
Of the four Marine Special Operations companies now established, the one ordered out of Afghanistan was the first to deploy overseas, according to Maj. Cliff Gilmore, a spokesman for the unit.
For decades the Marine Corps shunned special operation forces, in part because the corps considers its entire force elite troops.
The decision to form a separate command was made in part because the Pentagon had put greater resources into special operations in recent years, arguing that they are vital for fighting terrorists and conducting irregular warfare.
Gilmore said the company would rejoin the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which is deployed in the Middle East, though he would not specify where. It would not be sent back to Afghanistan on this deployment, he said.
In 2005, 24 people were killed by Marines in Haditha, Iraq, after an American convoy was hit by a roadside bomb.
Marine prosecutors have charged four enlisted Marines with murder in connection with the killings.