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 battalion.
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 conduct.
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 civilians."
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 Command.
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.