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The two ranking American officials in Iraq issued a statement late Thursday expressing “our heartfelt condolences” to the family members of four people allegedly murdered by U.S. troops in Mahmudiyah earlier this year. The case involves allegations that a former soldier raped and killed a young Iraqi woman and then executed three members of her family while on a patrol with other members of his squad.

“We understand this is painful, confusing and disturbing not only to the family who lost a loved one, but to the Iraqi people as a whole,” Gen. George Casey, commander of Multi-National Force-Iraq, and Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, said in a joint statement. “The alleged events of that day are absolutely inexcusable and unacceptable behavior. We will fully pursue all the facts in a vigorous and open process as we investigate this situation.”

On Monday, recently discharged Army Pfc. Steven D. Green, 21, was arrested by federal agents in North Carolina on suspicion of rape and murder. Three other soldiers — who along with Green served in Company B, 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment — are also being investigated in the incident and have been confined to their base in Iraq, officials said.

Green, who in May was discharged because of an unspecified personality disorder before the incident came to light, pleaded not guilty to the charges in a court appearance Thursday.

The case has threatened to boil over into a broader rift between American and Iraqi officials about “immunity” for U.S. soldiers in Iraq. Though there is no formal status of forces agreement, U.S. and Iraqi officials had previously agreed that any American soldiers tried and punished for crimes in Iraq would be handled through the U.S. system.

On Thursday, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki repeated his desire to revisit that system. “We have to review the immunity enjoyed by members of these forces or look for ways in which Iraqis can participate in the investigation. A lot of mistakes have been committed before Mahmudiyah that have caused grief and anger in the Iraqi people who cannot tolerate these brutal crimes for very long,” Maliki said.

President Bush has reacted to the case, calling it a “despicable crime, if true.”

“These are very serious charges and what the Iraqis must understand is that we will deal with these in a very transparent, upfront way,” Bush said in an interview broadcast Thursday on CNN. “What concerns me is not only the action and, you know, if this is true, the despicable crime, if true. But what I don’t want to have happen is for people to then say, well, the U.S. military is full of these kind of people. That is not the case. Our military is fabulous.”

In the statement released by Casey and Khalilzad, the pair said the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command, also known as CID, would continue to investigate the incident.

“Coalition forces came to Iraq to protect the rights and freedoms of the Iraqi people, to defend democratic values, and to uphold human dignity. As such, we will face every situation honestly and openly, and we will leave no stone unturned in pursuit of the facts,” the release read. “We will hold our service members accountable if they are found guilty of misconduct in a court of law.”

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