Associated Press & Al Jazeera – 2012-01-24 02:32:49
Plea Deal for Marine in Iraqi Deaths at Haditha
CAMP PENDLETON (January 23, 2012) — A Marine accused of killing unarmed Iraqi women and children pleaded guilty Monday to dereliction of duty in a deal that will mean a maximum of three months confinement and end the largest and longest-running criminal case against US troops to emerge from the Iraq War.
Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich of Meriden, Conn., led the Marine squad in 2005 that killed 24 Iraqis in the town of Haditha after a roadside bomb exploded near a Marine convoy, killing one Marine and wounding two others.
It was a stunning and muted end to a case once described as the Iraq War’s version of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam.
The incident in Iraq is considered among the war’s defining moments, further tainting America’s reputation when it was already at a low point after the release of photos of prisoner abuse by US soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison.
Eight Marines were charged with killing the Iraqis, with Wuterich facing the possibility of life behind bars. In the end, seven Marines were acquitted or had charges dropped, and Wuterich pleaded to the single, minor charge.
The killings still fuel anger in Iraq after becoming the primary reason behind demands that US troops not be given immunity from their court system.
Wuterich’s plea interrupted his trial at Camp Pendleton before a jury of combat Marines who served in Iraq.
In a hearing to determine if the facts of the plea were accurate and that he agreed, Wuterich acknowledged he was negligent in his duties because he told his squad to shoot first and ask questions later, or words to that effect.
“Honestly, I probably should have said nothing,” Wuterich told the judge, Lt. Col. David Jones. “I think we all understood what we were doing so I probably just should have said nothing.”
Later he added: “I shouldn’t have done that and it resulted in tragic events, sir.”
Wuterich acknowledged he had been trained in rules of engagement before going to Iraq and again when he was deployed.
He admitted he did not positively identify his targets, as he had learned to do in training. He said he ordered his troops to assault the homes based on the guidance of his platoon commander at the time.
Wuterich faces a maximum of three months confinement, two-thirds forfeiture of pay and a rank demotion to private when he’s sentenced, likely on Tuesday. The plea agreement calls for manslaughter charges to be dropped.
“No one denies that the events … were tragic, most of all Frank Wuterich,” defense attorney Neal Puckett told the North County Times. “But the fact of the matter is that he has now been totally exonerated of the homicide charges brought against him by the government and the media. For the last six years, he has had his name dragged through the mud. Today, we hope, is the beginning of his redemption.”
Phone messages left by The Associated Press for Puckett and co-counsel Mark Zaid weren’t immediately returned.
The issue at the court martial was whether Wuterich reacted appropriately as a Marine squad leader in protecting his troops in the midst of a chaotic war or disregarded combat rules and ordered his men to shoot and blast indiscriminately at Iraqi civilians.
Wuterich was charged with nine counts of manslaughter, among other charges.
Prosecutors said he lost control after seeing the body of his friend blown apart by the bomb and led his men on a rampage in which they stormed two nearby homes, blasting their way in with gunfire and grenades. Among the dead were women, children and elderly, including a man in a wheelchair.
Wuterich’s former squad members testified that they did not take any gunfire during the 45-minute raid on the homes or find any weapons. Still, several squad members testified they do not believe they did anything wrong because they feared insurgents were inside hiding.
The prosecution was further hurt by the testimony of Wuterich’s former platoon commander who said the squad was justified in its actions because the house was declared hostile, and from what he understood of the rules of combat at the time that meant any use of force could be used and Marines did not need to positively identify their targets.
Wuterich has said he regretted the loss of civilian lives but believed he was operating within military combat rules.
After Haditha, Marines commanders ordered troops to try and distinguish between civilians and combatants.
The trial was delayed for years by pre-trial wrangling between the defense and prosecution, including over whether the military could use unaired outtakes from an interview Wuterich gave in 2007 to CBS 60 Minutes. Prosecutors eventually won the right to view the footage
US Marine Pleads Guilty to Haditha Killings
(January 23, 2012) — A US Marine sergeant accused of leading a massacre of 24 Iraqi civilians in the Iraqi town of Haditha pleaded guilty on Monday to negligence, ending the final prosecution stemming from a 2005 incident. Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich, 31, the commander of a group of Marines whose other members have been exonerated, entered his plea as part of a deal with military prosecutors in which more serious charges of involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault were dismissed.
Wuterich was initially charged with murder. A sentencing hearing will be held Tuesday, said a spokesman for Camp Pendleton, south of Los Angeles.
‘Shoot First, Ask Questions Later’
“Staff Sergeant Wuterich accepted responsibility â€¦ and agreed and admits that he gave a verbal order to shoot first, ask questions later, or don’t hesitate to shoot, and words to that effect,” said spokesman Joe Koppel. “That verbal instruction caused his Marines to [not] positively identify targets in the two homes. And now, at the sentencing phase, he’ll be held accountable for those actions.”
The victims included 10 women and children killed at point-blank range. Six people were killed in one house, most shot in the head, including women and children huddled in a bedroom.
The other seven Marines charged in the case have been exonerated through various legal rulings, fueling anger in Iraq, where authorities had pushed for US troops to be subject to Iraqi justice before the US pullout in December.
Wuterich now faces a maximum sentence of three months of confinement, forfeiture of two-thirds of his pay for three months and a reduction in rank when he is sentenced on Tuesday at the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base north of San Diego, a base spokesman said.
Lawyers for the troops involved argued the deaths resulted from a fast-moving situation in which the Marines believed they were under enemy fire.
A military judge will now determine the sentencing, which will then go to Lieutenant General Thomas Waldhauser, commander of the Marine Corps Forces Central Command, for final adjudication.
US Troops ‘Told to Lie’ about Iraqi Killings
(January 12, 2012) — A US soldier has told a military jury in California how his commander killed five Iraqi civilians in the western al-Anbar province in 2005 and then asked him to lie about it. At a trial stemming from one of the Iraq war’s most controversial episodes, Sergeant Sanick Dela Cruz testified on Wednesday, the third day of Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich’s court martial.
Wuterich was Dela Cruz’s squad leader, who Dela Cruz said gunned down the Iraqis after they pulled up in a car near the scene of a bombing in which a US marine had died. In all, 24 Iraqi civilians including women and children were killed in the revenge attacks — 19 in several houses along with the five men who pulled up in a car in the town of Haditha on November 19, 2005.
At the military trial in Camp Pendleton, California, Dela Cruz told prosecutor Lieutenant Colonel Sean Sullivan that he saw the men outside the car on the side of the road. He testified that the Iraqis did not appear to have any weapons and were not making any quick moves toward the car. He said he then saw a man drop to the ground.
“That’s when I saw Staff Sergeant Wuterich kneeling with his gun aimed at the Iraqi. He was by the road holding the weapon in a firing position,” said Dela Cruz, demonstrating that position in the courtroom.
He said he could not recall how many gunshots he had heard. Dela Cruz also said that when he looked back in the direction of the car he did not see any of the men anymore.
“I run through there and crouched on the side of the vehicle. I saw four to five Iraqis dead near the trunk area of the car,” he said. “I saw Sergeant Wuterich approach the bodies, he shot at them,” said Dela Cruz, adding that Wuterich went around to each corpse and shot it in the upper body from close range.
“Sergeant Wuterich approached me and told me if anyone asks, the Iraqis were running away from the car and the Iraqi army shot them,” Dela Cruz said.
Dela Cruz, a veteran of three combat deployments, said he later urinated on the mangled head of one of the bodies, adding that he was “regretful” of his actions. “I was pissed, sir, about what happened (the bombing),” he said.
The Haditha victims included women and children who were shot dead at point-blank range. Six people were killed in one house, most shot in the head, including women and children huddled in a bedroom.
Seven other marines charged in the case have been exonerated through various legal rulings, fueling anger in Iraq, where authorities had pushed for US troops to be subject to Iraqi justice before the US pullout in December. Defence lawyer Haytham Faraj questioned Dela Cruz’s credibility, contending that he had a record of lying numerous times to military investigators in Iraq about what had happened the day of the killings.
Faraj also argued that Dela Cruz signed statements “fed” to him by investigators, saying the government had “bought” Dela Cruz’s testimony by dismissing murder charges against him and granting him immunity. Dela Cruz testified that he believed the squad was disciplined in general and also disciplined under fire. He told Faraj that he decided to tell the truth after speaking with a lawyer in Iraq in April 2006.
“My conscience is clean, sir,” he said.
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