Last December, when the U.S. Marine Corps charged
four infantrymen for the murder of 24 civilians in the Iraqi town of Haditha
on Nov. 19, 2005, the counts represented the most serious case of alleged war
crimes committed by Marines in Iraq or Afghanistan.
An official account of the incident, released Nov. 20, said that 15 civilian
Iraqis had been killed by a roadside bomb and eight other "insurgents"
were gunned down as they fought Iraqi army soldiers and Marines immediately
following the blast.
But as new details emerged, an investigation was launched, and a more disturbing
narrative developed: the 24 Iraqis had been the apparent victims of a vengeful
massacre at the hands of Marines.
Iraqi witnesses said that, after a roadside bomb had killed fellow Marine Lance
Cpl. Miguel Terrazas, the Marines went on a rampage, slaughtering civilians
on the street and in their homes. The dead included men, women, and children
as young as two years old. Death certificates of the 24 Iraqis indicate that
they had all been killed by gunshots, contrary to the official account.
The events of Haditha like the Abu Ghraib detainee-abuse scandal in 2004
outraged the U.S. public, and military officials promised to punish the guilty.
But more than one year later, the attempt to hold officers accountable for Abu
Ghraib has limped to a close, and the prosecution of the Marines accused in
the Haditha killings shows signs of crumbling.
Last week, Army Lt. Col. Steven L. Jordan, the only officer to face trial over
the Abu Ghraib scandal, was convicted of disobeying an order and reprimanded
by a military jury, a punishment that spares him any jail time. Jordan's punishment
is lighter than that of Army Col. Thomas M. Pappas, the top officer at Abu Ghraib.
He confessed to approving the use of dogs in interrogations and was granted
immunity from prosecution.
The preliminary hearing for Marine Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich began Thursday
at Camp Pendleton in California and marks perhaps the last chance for prosecutors
to bring to court-martial any of the Marines charged with being directly responsible
for the Haditha killings. Wuterich, the Marine squad leader and the senior enlisted
man in the incident, is charged with 13 counts of murder in connection with
the deaths of 18 Iraqis.
Of the four enlisted Marines and four officers charged, murder charges against
two of the enlisted men have since been dropped, as have dereliction of duty
charges against one of the officers, Capt. Randy W. Stone, a lawyer with the
As in the Abu Ghraib scandal, the prosecutions in Haditha tend to focus on
enlisted men and noncommissioned officers those accused of having personally
committed the acts not the officers who command the units. In the Abu Ghraib
case, 11 soldiers were convicted of various charges relating to the incidents,
including dereliction of duty.
The four commissioned officers involved with the Haditha killings were only
charged with failing to direct a thorough investigation and were not present
during the incident.
But prosecutors have had a difficult time convincing a skeptical investigating
officer and a general who presides over preliminary hearings that the Marines
had committed murder in Haditha. Additionally, the killings were not thoroughly
investigated when they first occurred, and forensic evidence is nonexistent.
In August, Lt. Col. Paul J. Ware recommended that charges against Lance Cpl.
Justin L. Sharratt and Lance Cpl. Stephen B. Tatum be dismissed, arguing that
in both cases, the Marines were operating in a complex combat environment and
that their actions, while horrific, did not constitute a criminal offense.
"My opinion is that there is insufficient evidence for trial. Lt. Cpl.
Tatum shot and killed people in houses 1 and 2, but the reason he did so was
because of his training and the circumstances he was placed in, not to exact
revenge and commit murder," wrote Ware in a 29-page report regarding Tatum's
Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis, commanding officer of Marine Forces Central Command,
dismissed charges against Sharratt after a preliminary hearing, and in a letter
to the infantryman, wrote:
"The intense examination into this incident, and into your conduct,
has been necessary to maintain our discipline standards, and, in the words of
the Marine hymn, 'To keep our honor clean.'
You have served as a Marine
infantryman in Iraq where our nation is fighting a shadowy enemy who hides among
the innocent people, and routinely targets and intentionally draws fire toward
Charges against another member of the squad, Sgt. Sanick Dela Cruz, were dropped
in exchange for his testimony against other Marines. On Friday, Cruz testified
that he saw Wuterich kill five Iraqis as they stood beside a taxi immediately
after the blast. He said Wuterich then walked over to the bodies and pumped
more bullets into them, according to a report from the Los Angeles Times.
"He went to each and shot at them," Dela Cruz said. "The muzzle
[of his rifle] was about a foot from their upper torsos."
Several hours after the incident, Wuterich reportedly told Cruz that should
officers question him, the five Iraqis had been running away. Under the rules
of engagement taught to Marines, Iraqis fleeing the scene of a roadside bomb
explosion can be shot in the back, according to testimony at a preliminary hearing
for another Marine.
In some cases, soldiers have faced much stiffer penalties.
Seven Marines and a Navy corpsman were charged with kidnapping and killing
an Iraqi in the town of Hamandiya in April 2006. Five of the eight squad members
pleaded guilty and the three others were convicted at courts-martial. Only the
squad leader, Sgt. Lawrence Hutchins, is still behind bars, but his 15-year
sentence is being reviewed by Mattis, commanding officer of Marine Forces Central
Three soldiers accused of the rape and murder of a teenage girl and her family
in March 2006 in Mahmudiyah received life sentences after pleading guilty. A
fourth soldier who acted as a lookout was sentenced to 27 months in jail. The
accused ringleader, Steven Green, risks the death penalty.
(Inter Press Service)