Human rights activists say that if the accusations prove to be true, the incident would rank as the worst case of deliberate killing of Iraqi civilians by US service members since the war began, the report said.

According to Time, the incident occurred on the morning of November 19, 2005, when a roadside bomb struck a humvee carrying troops from Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, on a road near Haditha.

The bomb killed Lance Corporal Miguel Terrazas from El Paso, Texas. The next day, the Marines issued a statement saying that Terrazas and 15 Iraqi civilians had died when armed men attacked the convoy with small arms fire, prompting the Marines to return fire, killing eight of them and wounding one other.

But the details of what happened that morning in Haditha are more disturbing, disputed and horrific than the military initially reported, Time said.

War crime?

According to eyewitnesses and local officials interviewed over the past 10 weeks, the civilians who died in Haditha were killed not by the roadside bomb but by the Marines themselves. They went on a rampage in the village after the attack, killing 15 unarmed Iraqis in their homes, including seven women and three children, the magazine said.

The US military questioned 28
people including the Marines

In January, after Time presented military officials in Baghdad with the Iraqis' accounts of the events, the US military opened its own investigation into the incident.The military interviewed 28 people, including the Marines, the families of the victims and local doctors, the report said.

The initial inquiry acknowledged that, contrary to the military's initial report, the 15 civilians died at the hands of the Marines, not the armed attackers, the magazine said.

It added that the available evidence did not provide conclusive proof that the Marines deliberately killed innocent people in Haditha.

But human rights groups that also investigated the incident say survivors and local officials question whether the force used by the Marines was justified and whether they were initially candid about what took place, Time said.