Evidence collected in the deaths of 24 Iraqis in Haditha supports accusations that U.S. Marines deliberately shot civilians, including unarmed women and children, a Pentagon official said Wednesday.

Agents of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service completed their initial work on the incident last November, but may be asked to probe further as Marine Corps and Navy prosecutors review the evidence and determine whether to recommend criminal charges, according to two Pentagon officials who discussed the matter with the Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

The decision on whether to press criminal charges ultimately will be made by the commander of the accused Marines' parent unit, the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Pendleton, Calif.

That currently is Lt.-Gen. John Sattler, but he is scheduled to move to a Pentagon assignment soon. His successor will be Lt.-Gen. James Mattis.

The Marines initially reported after the Nov. 19, 2005incident that 15 Iraqi civilians at Haditha had been killed by a makeshift roadside bomb and in crossfire between Marines and insurgent attackers.

Based on accounts from survivors and human rights groups, Time magazine first reported in March that the killings were deliberate acts by the Marines, carried out after a roadside bomb killed one of their colleagues.

A criminal investigation was then ordered by the top Marine commander in Iraq, Maj.-Gen. Richard Zilmer.

A parallel investigation is examining whether officers in the Marines' chain of command tried to cover up the events.