Advertisement

Court-martial begins in Marine killing of 24 Iraqis

U.S. combat involvement in Iraq is over, but the controversial events of one of the bloodiest mornings involving U.S. troops in that eight-year war are now the focus of a high-profile court-martial here.

The day was Nov. 19, 2005, when Marines fatally shot 24 Iraqis in the village of Haditha in a failed search for insurgents who had just detonated a roadside bomb that killed one Marine and severely injured two others.

An eight-man jury — made up entirely of combat veterans — is asked to decide whether a squad leader acted out of vengeance or was merely following orders and standard procedure when he led his Marines into nearby homes where, without asking questions, they began firing their M-16s and hurling grenades.

Among Iraqis killed were three women, seven children and a 76-year-old man in a wheelchair.

Advertisement

Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, 31, the squad leader, is charged with manslaughter, assault and dereliction of duty. The charges carry a penalty of 152 years in prison.

The prosecution says Wuterich, agonized by the death of a fellow Marine, lost control of himself and led his squad. The defense says Wuterich responded the way he was trained to do when Marines are under fire from hidden gunmen.

Much of the trial will center on questions about the “rules of engagement” — specifically whether Marines need to make individual determinations that attackers have “hostile intent” before killing them — and on the responsibility of a squad leader for the actions of young Marines under his command.

The case also brings up a dilemma that remains relevant to U.S. forces in Afghanistan: What code of conduct can be expected of Marines or soldiers when they are fighting an enemy that hides behind women and children?

Advertisement

Maj. Nicholas Gannon, the lead prosecutor, told jurors Monday that Wuterich made “a series of fatal assumptions and lost control of himself” — first in killing five young men outside their car and then in giving his Marines a “shoot-to-kill” order when they swept through the houses.

Gannon said that even after it was known that the dead in the houses included women and children, Wuterich insisted to a military investigator that his Marines “did their job, they did it well.”

“The evidence will show that none of the victims were a threat,” Gannon said.

To a military investigator, Wuterich had said, “I told [his Marines] to treat the house as a hostile environment. I told them ‘shoot first, ask questions later.’ ”

Advertisement

Testimony will show that Wuterich stood at the foot of a bed where a woman and child were cowering in fear and shot them in the head, Gannon said.

But lead defense attorney Haytham Faraj said that Wuterich had followed his orders and the rules of engagement after being told by a lieutenant to “clear” houses near the explosion that ripped apart the Humvee and killed Cpl. Miguel Terrazas.

The Marines, Faraj said, were under fire from the houses and needed to respond. The deaths, he said, were “the unfortunate result of a squad leader doing the best he could that day.”

Repeatedly, Faraj asked the jurors — all veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan — to use their knowledge of combat and of “clearing” occupied houses to determine if Wuterich acted properly and whether other Marines, given immunity to testify against him, are being truthful.

Advertisement

“You have a bunch of scared Marines,” he said.

When Wuterich and other Marines from Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, arrived in Haditha in the fall of 2005, they were warned by intelligence officers that Haditha would be “another Fallouja,” the site of the bloodiest urban fighting involving Marines since Vietnam.

The battalion that the unit replaced had two dozen Marines killed in combat. Insurgents had beheaded local residents who had been friendly to the Marines.

The Marines were warned that fighters from Syria were flooding into Haditha to mount “complex attacks” with snipers and buried roadside bombs and that the fighters would hide behind noncombatants.

Advertisement

And so when a roadside bomb exploded beneath a Marine convoy, Marines were convinced that a complex attack was underway, Faraj said. Attacks were underway in other parts of Haditha as well.

The defense will question the competency of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and suggest that Marine brass panicked and began looking for scapegoats when Time magazine splashed the story of the killings as “Massacre in Haditha.”

A military investigator concluded that Wuterich and his Marines had done nothing wrong, that the deaths of noncombatants were tragic but not proof of an illegal act.

When there are multiple reports of being under fire from a location, it is unreasonable to expect each Marine to stop to decide whether each individual in that location presents a “hostile act,” the investigator concluded.

Advertisement

In the weeks after the incident, Wuterich was recommended for promotion and a commendation for having been cool under fire that morning. But within months, after the magazine story ignited a political firestorm in the U.S. and Iraq, Wuterich and seven other Marines were charged.

The NCIS investigation came to the opposite conclusion of the military inquiry, deciding that the Marines acted illegally by breaking into homes and killing the unarmed occupants without any solid proof of “hostile intent” on their part.

The NCIS report was “garbage,” Faraj said. The NCIS subjected one Marine to a 14-hour interrogation to “get the story they wanted,” he said.

The cases against seven other Marines have been resolved: Six had cases dropped and one was found not guilty. Wuterich’s case was delayed by years of legal wrangling, including a bid by prosecutors for “outtakes” from an interview Wuterich gave in 2007 to the CBS show “60 Minutes.”

Advertisement

In his opening statement Monday to the jury, the lead prosecutor played snippets of that interview.

In one segment, Wuterich tells CBS reporter Scott Pelley that “all the actions that were taken that day … were taken as they should have been done.”

Faraj told jurors that they will hear all three hours of the interview and that their view of Wuterich will change. The complete interview will show that what Wuterich meant was for Marines not to hesitate once they were in the house because hesitation in such circumstances can get Marines killed.

On one point the prosecution and defense agreed: Wuterich was on his first combat deployment and had never before been under fire.

Advertisement

“I ask you to give Staff Sgt. Wuterich his life back and put Haditha behind us,” Faraj told jurors.

tony.perry@latimes.com


Advertisement
Advertisement