Marine Disputes Investigators' Haditha Story

Marine Sgt. Frank Wuterich is the main focus of the investigation into the deaths of 24 Iraqi civilians at the town of Haditha last fall. That's according to a government official. But Wuterich's lawyer says the 26-year-old father of two followed the proper rules of engagement.

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Here now is the latest on the investigation into the deaths of 24 Iraqi civilians in the town of Haditha last fall. There are inquiries into whether Marines should face charges in those deaths and whether there was a cover-up. A sergeant who led the squad involved is the main focus of the investigation. His lawyer says the 26-year-old followed the rules of engagement.

NPR's Tom Bowman reports.

TOM BOWMAN reporting:

Sergeant Frank Wuterich was a squad leader the night of November 19. He and 10 other Marines from Camp Pendleton's Third Battalion First Marine Regiment rolled into Haditha in four Humvees. Suddenly, a roadside bomb exploded and killed a Marine in the last Humvee and wounded two others.

Wuterich ordered the remaining Marines out of their vehicles and set up defenses. In the midst of the confusion, a taxicab appeared carrying five Iraqi males.

That much is known. The rest of the story is being pieced together by investigators. What happened that morning could be the worst massacre of civilians in the 3-year-old war or it could be a story of confusion and tragedy, the deaths of innocents in the midst of a brutal and stubborn insurgency.

A Pentagon source familiar with the ongoing investigation said Wuterich told the five Iraqis to get out of the taxi. They stood there unarmed, then they were all shot by Marines. That's according to statements from Marines and Iraqis.

Wuterich's lawyer, Neil Puckett, says the Iraqis fled from the cab. Wuterich and the other Marines fired at them. They did not know whether the Iraqis were armed or not.

Mr. NEIL PUCKETT (Frank Wuterich's lawyer): They shot them because they refused to obey commands and began to run away and that was positive identification at the time for hostile intent.

BOWMAN: Wuterich and the other Marines stormed four houses. Puckett says they thought they were taking fire.

Mr. PUCKETT: They believed they were taking fire from the first house and then they cleared the houses in the fashion in which they were trained as if they're occupied by insurgents.

BOWMAN: In the end, two dozen Iraqis died, including 11 women and children. But the Pentagon source says the investigation so far says it's not clear the Marines were taking any fire. And Defense Department sources say they have statements from some of the Marines about a cover-up. The sources say Wuterich worked with some on the squad to craft a story that they were in danger. Puckett says he has heard nothing like that from his client.

Mr. PUCKETT: I don't know anything about any statements that others have made.

BOWMAN: Lawyers for the Marines say any criminal case will likely hinge on competing statements from Iraqis and Marines. The central questions will be, did the Marines believe shots were coming from the house? Did they believe their lives were in danger?

Mr. GARY MYERS (Attorney for Unnamed Marine Involved in Haditha Attack): What do we do in circumstances like this when our young people are put at risk? How far do we go? Is it better to have them step back and call in a 500-pound bomb air strike?

BOWMAN: That's Gary Myers, an attorney for a lance corporal who was a member of that squad and could be implicated in the case. Myers will not reveal his client's name.

Defense Department sources say one problem for investigators is that there is very little forensic evidence, such as bullet casings or bloody clothing. Investigators are trying to exhume the bodies, but the families have said no.

Gary Solis is a law professor and former Marine officer. He says exhuming the bodies is less important than finding a squad member to cooperate with investigators.

Mr. GARY SOLIS (Georgetown University): But every prosecutor knows you only need to flip one. And they will press. There will be some defense counsel who sees the writing on the wall, who will race to the courthouse and say, what'll you give my man for a deal?

BOWMAN: Myers says that person may have emerged. He says a Marine corporal who was there that day is talking to investigators. The investigation is expected to be completed this summer; then the Marines will decide whether to file criminal charges.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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