WASHINGTON - Amid allegations of war atrocities by American soldiers against Iraqi civilians, the Pentagon's top Marine flew to Baghdad to warn his troops against allowing the violence to leave them callous to human suffering and the loss of life.


"We do not employ force just for the sake of employing force. We use lethal force only when justified, proportional and, most importantly, lawful," Gen. Michael W. Hagee, the Marine Corps commandant, wrote in a statement issued by his office. Aides said it was the basis of remarks he intended to make to Marines in Iraq this week.

Hagee departed for Iraq Thursday, just hours after the disclosure of a criminal investigation into allegations that an unspecified number of Marines killed an Iraqi civilian west of Baghdad on April 26.

It is the second allegation of Marines killing civilians in recent months.

"Many of our Marines have been involved in life or death combat or have witnessed the loss of their fellow Marines, and the effects of these events can be numbing," Hagee said in his statement. "There is the risk of becoming indifferent to the loss of a human life, as well as bringing dishonor upon ourselves."

Col. David Lapan, a spokesman for Hagee, said the general had scheduled the trip long ago but in light of the latest allegations he decided to use the visit as an opportunity to reinforce Marine Corps values and standards.

"To a Marine, honor is more than just honesty; it means having uncompromising personal integrity and being accountable for all actions," Hagee said. He urged all Marines to have the moral courage to "do the `right thing' in the face of danger or pressure from other Marines."

He referred to "recent serious allegations about actions of Marines in combat," but he did not specifically cite the two cases one from last November and the other in April of alleged killings of civilians.

In Wednesday's announcement of the latest criminal investigation, Marine officials said a preliminary probe had found enough information to recommend a full investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigation Service.

The Marine Corps provided no details about the alleged killing, including either the gender or age of the victim. It said "several service members" from the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, based in the Fallujah area about 40 miles west of Baghdad, were suspected of involvement. They were "removed from operations" and sent back to the U.S. pending the results of the criminal investigation, it said.

A second criminal investigation is probing allegations that Marines from another battalion killed at least 15 civilians, including women and children, last November in Haditha, 140 miles northwest of Baghdad.

The military initially described the Haditha encounter as an ambush during a joint U.S.-Iraqi patrol that involved a roadside bombing in which a Marine died, followed by a firefight. However, residents of the neighborhood maintained that only U.S. forces were shooting after the explosion.

John Sifton, a counterterrorism researcher with the Human Rights Watch, said his group's review of available information on the Haditha attack leads him to conclude there is no room for doubt that it was a case of murder.

"This was an intentional killing of unarmed civilians," Sifton said.

Both the House and Senate armed services committees plan to hold hearings on the matter. Hagee met with top lawmakers from those panels this week and discussed the November and April incidents.