Marine Sergeant Testifies in Haditha Hearing

Marine Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, accused in the deaths of Iraqi civilians, tells a military court "the threat had to be neutralized" after a roadside bomb hit his convoy and killed a fellow Marine. The officer overseeing hearings about the slayings in Haditha will make a court martial recommendation.

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A U.S. Marine accused of a massacre had a chance to tell his side of the story. Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich led a squad that killed 24 civilians in the Iraqi town of Haditha. He faces multiple counts of unpremeditated murder.

NPR's John McChesney reports on Wuterich's hearing yesterday at Camp Pendleton, California.

JOHN McCHESNEY: Sergeant Wuterich delivered his un-sworn statement in crisp military style - without emotion. He said he would never be okay with what happened November 19th, 2005. He lost a Marine to a roadside bomb just outside Haditha in the pre-dawn hours. He said he got out of his Humvee, remained calm, and immediately shot five Iraqi males who were running away from a white taxi.

That they were running away is a major point of dispute in this case. Under immunity from murder charges, another squad member testified that some of the men had their hands on their heads and weren't running. Defense lawyers say he's lying. During the hearing there were long debates about the rules of engagement, the legal rules governing the use of force in Iraq.

One Marine legal officer testified that it's not legal to shoot just anyone running away from a roadside bomb site. Sgt. Wuterich says he thought the men beside the taxi might be trigger men. Following the shooting of the men near the taxi, Wuterich's squad assaulted two houses nearby, killing 19 more civilians. He said today that hostile fire was coming from one of those houses, but the source of hostile fire, if there was any at all, is in dispute.

In any case, Wuterich told investigators that he told his men to shoot first and ask questions later. Earlier, a military instructor testified that if you say shoot first, then everyone is expendable. And that's not acceptable. The investigative officer overseeing the hearing will make a recommendation as to whether Wuterich should face a court martial.

John McChesney, NPR News.

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