In Iraqi Killings Case, Marine Takes Plea Deal

A plea deal has been reached in the court martial case of Marine Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich. He was the last person facing charges in the killings of 24 Iraqis at the village of Haditha in 2005. Monday, he admitted to one charge of dereliction of duty. The case became a touchstone for criticism of the Iraq war. Originally, several Marines were charged with murder in the case. But the Marines who killed the Iraqi civilians that day claimed that their actions were tragic — but legal under the official rules of engagement in a complex war fought in and among the people. Melissa Block talks to NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman for the latest.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The military trial of a Marine sergeant came to a sudden end today. His case defined an era and recalled the bloodiest days of the Iraq war. On November 19, 2005, 24 Iraqi civilians were killed in the village of Haditha. Eventually, murder charges were filed against several Marines, including Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich. He was the last Marine facing any charges, the murder charge reduced to manslaughter.

NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joins us now with the end of that case. And, Tom, this case ended with a plea deal. What exactly did Sergeant Wuterich plead guilty to?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, Sergeant Wuterich pleaded guilty to one count of dereliction of duty. Now that's a fairly low-level charge. So what he'll face after all of this is forfeiture of pay, reduction in rank, and he could face up to three months in jail.

BLOCK: This case, as we said, goes back to 2005, Tom. Remind us what Sergeant Wuterich was originally charged with and what specifically happened there in Haditha.

BOWMAN: Well, again, this is the fall of 2005, or at the height of the Iraqi insurgency in the village of Haditha in western Iraq. Now the Marines that day were on a routine supply mission and one of their vehicles struck a roadside bomb, killing one of the Marines here. And that's what started this whole thing.

And in the middle of that, right after the bomb struck, this car suddenly pulls up with five Iraqi men in it. The Marines ordered them out of the car. They were unarmed. The Marines say they started to run, and the Marines killed all of them.

BLOCK: And after that, what happened?

BOWMAN: Then the Marines started taking fire from some nearby houses. This is all very chaotic at the time. It was Sergeant Wuterich's first time in combat. They stormed into the house. They threw grenades and were using assault weapons, and women and children were killed in that house. Then they moved on to three more houses, firing and killing others.

When it was all over, two dozen Iraqi men, women and children were killed. No weapons were found. Sergeant Wuterich and seven other Marines were implicated in the case, some charged with murder, others with lesser charges. And all those cases were dismissed, or charges were dropped. One of the Marines was acquitted.

BLOCK: Tom, the defense here for Sergeant Wuterich basically claimed that horrible things happen in war, but that this was not a crime.

BOWMAN: That's right. They say what happened here, you know, the Marines were under fire, one Marine, of course, was killed. They deemed those houses hostile, and they thought they were justified in attacking the house. Prosecution says hang on a second here. You went too far, that Sergeant Wuterich couldn't keep his Marines under control, that they went beyond the rules of engagement, where you have to have positive identification before you shoot.

BLOCK: Why in the end did the prosecutors agree to such a light charge? Again, he's pleading guilty to one count of dereliction of duty. That's it.

BOWMAN: Right. The sense was the case simply just fell apart. They didn't have the forensic evidence. They didn't have witnesses. They offered immunity to some of those involved in exchange for testimony. But in the end, some of those witnesses actually were favoring the defense, talking about the hostile environment and saying they could use deadly force.

Some people I talked with fault the Marine prosecutors for not aggressively pressing this case over the years. And, again, it took six years to bring this to court, and over that time memories fade. In the end, they just didn't have much of a case.

The other thing, too, is some Marines I talked with are particularly upset by this. They say 24 innocent people were killed. No one is really facing stiff punishment, and this sends the wrong message to other Marines.

BLOCK: And this is the end of this case of Haditha?

BOWMAN: Yeah. This is all over. Sergeant Wuterich was the last one facing charges in the Haditha killings, one of the more horrific incidents of the entire Iraq war.

BLOCK: OK. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Tom, thanks so much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Melissa.

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