WASHINGTON – Army investigators have launched a probe into the deaths of three Iraqi men in coalition custody, the U.S. military announced Friday, bringing to three the number of known active investigations into possible criminal killings of Iraqis by U.S. troops.

A military statement said Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, commander of U.S. ground forces in Iraq, ordered the investigation after other soldiers reported their suspicions about the deaths. The deaths occurred in southern Salah ad Din province “on or about May 9,” the statement said.

A military official who asked not to be identified because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the probe said Army investigators were looking into whether U.S. troops killed the men while they were in custody. No other details were available.

The announcement came on the same day that Chiarelli received the conclusions of a probe into whether U.S. Marines and their commanders tried to cover up the circumstances of the deaths of 24 Iraqi civilians in the town of Haditha last November.

Army Maj. Gen. Eldon Bargewell led the investigation into whether U.S. Marines or their commanding officers lied or attempted to cover up what happened during the Nov. 19, 2005, killings. His investigation is separate from one being conducted by Naval criminal investigators into whether the Marines killed the civilians in revenge for a roadside bomb explosion that left one Marine dead and another wounded.

A day after the attack, the Marines said that 15 civilians riding in a bus were killed in the explosion and that eight insurgents died in a resulting firefight. But Iraqi witnesses in Haditha later said that the Marines went through three houses after the attack, killing 24 people, including women and children. An initial inquiry later determined that the Marines may have given a false account of what happened.

Another investigation is looking into the shooting death on April 26 of an Iraqi man in the town of Hamdania. Marines reported that they killed the man after they saw him digging a hole for a roadside bomb, but his family says that the Marines took the man from his home in the middle of the night and killed him, then planted an AK-47 and shovel near him to make him look like an insurgent.

Seven Marines and a Navy corpsman have been jailed at Camp Pendleton, Calif., pending the outcome of the investigation.

Knowledgeable officials said Bargewell’s report is thousands of pages long and won’t be made public for some time. Chiarelli can approve Bargewell’s findings, substitute his own conclusions based on evidence outlined in the report, or send it back to the investigating officer with a request for more information. He also can make recommendations that would require action by superior officers.

He has no deadline for taking action, said Lt. Col. Michelle Martin-Hing, a spokesperson for Multi-National Corps-Iraq.

Bargewell’s investigation examined how events surrounding the killings were reported from the Marines to superior officers. It also looked at the type of training the Marines received before arriving in Iraq and the command atmosphere within the unit, the military said.

In an effort to reduce civilian casualties, Maj. Gen. James Thurman, commander of U.S. and coalition troops in Baghdad, said Friday that U.S. forces have eliminated impromptu traffic checkpoints in the capital.

Thurman said the elimination of traffic checkpoints and greater emphasis on when troops can shoot had reduced “escalation of force incidents” – instances in which civilians at roadblocks have been shot by U.S. troops who took them as threats – by more than 50 percent in the Baghdad area. He didn’t say over what period of time the reduction had taken place or how many incidents were involved.

Thurman said he reviews daily the number of incidents in which U.S. troops use or threaten to use force. He said his commanders review what happened in each case and look at ways to prevent similar incidents from happening.

“This requires a lot of small unit leadership, and that’s what this is all about,” he said, “thinking about your actions before you act.”

Thurman said only one “escalation of force” incident was reported by U.S. troops in Baghdad on Friday, but there were no injuries.

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