The United States military charged eight Marines on Thursday in connection with the unlawful killing of 24 Iraqi civilians during a raid in Haditha, Iraq, in late 2005. Four stand accused of murder -- an unusual charge in wartime and a factor, at least measured by the number of deaths, that makes this the most serious case against US forces for crimes committed in Iraq.
At Camp Pendleton, California, the military charged the main defendant, Staff Sergeant Frank D. Wuterich, 26, of the unpremeditated murder of 12 people, and the murder of six others by ordering Marines preparing to enter a house to "shoot first and ask questions later," according to court papers. He faces a possible life sentence in prison if convicted.
Three enlisted men were also charged with unpremeditated murder and face up to life in prison if convicted. The other four men -- including battalion commander Lt. Col. Jeffrey R. Chessani, 42 -- face far less time in prison for allegedly covering the incident up. Chessani is accused of failing to accurately report and thoroughly investigate the killings, as well as dereliction of duty. He could face dismissal and up to two years in prison.
Massacre of innocents
No one denies that civilians were killed, and the incident in Haditha on Nov. 19, 2005, followed a roadside bombing hours earlier that claimed the life of one of the soldiers' comrades. Haditha lies in Iraq's violent Anbar Province, where Sunni insurgents dominate. The roadside bomb went off when a convoy of four Marine Humvees was driving down a main thoroughfare in Haditha. The explosion killed Miguel Terrazas, 20, and wounded two other soldiers from the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment.
The subsequent "massacre" in Haditha is seen as revenge for the bombing. Since mothers, babies, and a man confined to a wheelchair were among those killed, the incident has been compared to the My Lai massacre in 1968, when enraged and frustrated US soldiers hunted down innocent Vietnamese villagers.
The case is being tried in California because the 3rd Battalion is based at Camp Pendleton, north of San Diego. Some Iraqis found it unfair that the Marines wouldn't be charged in Iraq. "The American soldiers should be brought here, in front of an Iraqi court," a 36-year-old Iraqi laborer named Naji al-Ani told the Associated Press. "They committed a horrible crime against innocents." A 40-year-old teacher from Haditha said, "Are they terrorists, or are they fighting terrorists?"
Neal Puckett, an attorney for Staff Sgt. Wuterich -- who stands at the center of the case for the orders he allegedly gave -- argued that his client carried out the killings in accordance with his training. "There's no question that innocent people died that day, but Staff Sergeant Wuterich believes, and I believe, they did everything they were trained to do," he said. "We look forward to the opportunity to bring the facts out."