BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki broke his public silence Tuesday on the alleged killing of about 24 civilians by U.S. Marines, saying such deaths were never justified, even in the fight against terrorists.

The deaths in Haditha, a volatile town in western Iraq, have barely caused a stir in Iraq and much of the Arab world, which look at American troops as brutal invaders.

Al-Maliki, speaking in a television interview with the British Broadcasting Corp., expressed remorse over the reported killings last November.

“We emphasize that our forces, that multinational forces will respect human rights, the rights of the Iraqi citizen,” al-Maliki said. “It is not justifiable that a family is killed because someone is fighting terrorists, we have to be more specific and more careful.”

Arab media have largely ignored the allegations of brutal Marine misconduct in Haditha, though a few publications have made highly critical comments and said events in the small Euphrates River town northwest of Baghdad were neither the biggest alleged atrocity by American forces nor would they be the last.

The pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat focused on the role of the Western media in exposing the allegations.

“As soon as I read the news, the immediate question that came to mind was: ‘Why wasn’t the tape broadcast by an Arab channel or published in an Arab newspaper?”‘ asked Diana Mukkaled in the newspaper’s Sunday edition.

Mukkaled referred to a videotape shot by an Iraqi journalism student and later obtained by Time magazine that showed the bodies of women and children, some in their nightclothes.

Reports of what happened in Haditha did not surface until March when the incident began to be seriously investigated. An Associated Press report in March included accounts from people in the town who said they witnessed killings.

But for now, renewed U.S. interest in the allegations has only drawn a muted response from the media in Iraq. That also appeared to be largely the case elsewhere in the Arab world.

The daily Al-Thawra ran the agency’s report with the headline: “Marines deliberately killed children in Iraq.”

In the Persian Gulf region, whose rulers are longtime Washington allies, the media reported the killings, but without editorial comment.

Dawood al-Shirian, a Saudi commentator and TV talk show host, said other regional issues, like the Fatah-Hamas rivalry in the Palestinian territories, could have overshadowed the Haditha killings.

“But this issue cannot be hidden for long,” al-Shirian told the AP. “Sooner or later, it will come to the surface.”

“This crime shows that the American administration did not only fail politically, militarily and financially (in Iraq) but has specifically failed morally,” said Lebanese rights activist Maan Bashour.

Rami Khouri, editor-at-large for the Beirut, Lebanon-based Daily Star newspaper, wrote in March that it will be difficult for American forces to sway Iraqi opinion in their favor.

“When foreign armies are sent halfway around the world or next door to fight in an alien land, the occupied natives inevitably become hostile in response to the mere presence and conduct of the foreign troops that rule them,” he wrote. “Iraq is only the most recent affirmation of this universal fact.”

The killings have prompted two U.S. investigations, one into the deadly encounter and a second into whether it was covered up. The Marine Corps had initially attributed 15 civilian deaths to a car bombing and a subsequent firefight that left eight insurgents dead.

What happened in Haditha remains unclear. Rep. John Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat and decorated war veteran, said a Marine was killed when a bomb hit a military convoy. Angered by the loss of a comrade, the Marines shot and killed unarmed civilians in a taxi, then went into two homes and shot the occupants, including women and children.

“Who covered it up, why did they cover it up, why did they wait so long?” asked Murtha, a former Marine and critic of Iraq policy. Interviewed on ABC’s “This Week,” Murtha said: “We don’t know how far it goes. It goes right up the chain of command.”

Haditha is in Anbar province, a mainly desert region that stretches from just west of Baghdad to the Jordanian and Syrian borders. Its inhabitants are overwhelmingly Sunni Arabs and it has been the most dangerous part of Iraq for U.S. forces since their arrival in 2003.

Anbar’s communities maintain strong tribal links and are bitter critics of the post-Saddam Hussein order in Iraq, in which the Sunni Arabs lost dominance to the Shiites and Kurds, who combined make up about 80 percent of Iraq’s 27 million people.

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AP-ES-05-30-06 2024EDT

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