ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Now an update on a story we've been reporting for several months. Seven U.S. Marines are facing charges of murder and dereliction of duty in connection with the killing of Iraqi civilians in the town of Haditha 18 months ago.

The Marines initially said 24 Iraqis were killed by a roadside bomb. Media reports uncovered a more troubling story, and some in Congress say these are the most serious war crimes and allegations out of Iraq. Now, investigating officers are calling for some charges to be reduced.

And as NPR's Tom Bowman reports, it raises questions about the strength of the government's case.

TOM BOWMAN: It was November 2005 when a Marine convoy rolled into Haditha, a dusty insurgent haven northwest of Baghdad. Suddenly, a roadside bomb ripped into one of the Humvees, killing a Marine.

The squad quickly fanned out, pulling Iraqis out of a car and searching nearby houses. Among the Marines was Lance Corporal Justin Sharratt. He raised his 9mm pistol and shot three Iraqi men dead in a house.

Marine prosecutors say Sharratt executed the Iraqis. But now, an investigating officer wants the charges against Sharratt dismissed. The officers say Sharratt faced a threat; it was justified in shooting the men. Sharratt's lawyer Gary Myers agrees and says his client has been vilified in a rush to judgment.

Mr. GARY MYERS (Defense Attorney): We were quite concerned in the very beginning of this representation that both the press and members of Congress had reached some conclusions, had grounded in information that had not been tested.

BOWMAN: The investigative report points out that the men shot by Sharratt were all facing forward. That's not consistent with an execution style. Sharratt said one of the Iraqis pointed an AK-47 at him. The report says that two AK-47 riffles were recovered from the house. A final decision on Sharratt will be made by a top Marine officer.

Professor GARY SOLIS (Law, Georgetown University: Former Marine Lawyer): No murder case is ever easy. This has always been a very difficult case going in.

BOWMAN: That's Gary Solis, a former Marine lawyer and now a law professor specializing in war crimes. Solis says the difficulties include no bodies to examine, little forensic evidence, conflicting statements. But Solis says it's too early to say the Haditha cases are unraveling. One of the officers facing a court martial is the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Chessani.

Prof. SOLIS: I know of no case in recent times where a U.S. officer has been charged with dereliction of duty on the battlefield.

BOWMAN: There are two other Marines charged with murder - Lance Corporal Stephen Tatum and Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich. Both men stormed two houses, the dead included women and children.

In addition to the killings in the houses, Wuterich is also being charged with killing five unarmed Iraqi men. They pulled up in a car shortly after that roadside bomb exploded. Wuterich was interviewed in March by CBS. He acknowledges shooting the man after they ran. He says they could have been the ones who detonated that roadside bomb or maybe they were spotters.

(Soundbite of CBS interview)

Staff Sergeant FRANK WUTERICH (U.S. Marine): They were 100 meters away from that IED. Those are the things that went through my mind before I pulled the trigger. And, you know, that was positive identification.

BOWMAN: But one Marine granted immunity says Wuterich shot the men as they had their hands up. Wuterich then turned to the houses, he told CBS.

(Soundbite of CBS interview)

Staff Sgt. WUTERICH: I did not see muzzle flashes come from the house. Correct.

BOWMAN: But if he witnessed no hostile fire, how was there a threat?

(Soundbite of CBS interview)

Staff Sgt. WUTERICH: Because that was the only logical place that the fire can come through seeing the environment there.

BOWMAN: Wuterich's lawyer, Mark Zaid, says his client was told by other Marines that fire was coming from the houses. Zaid says, like Sharratt, his client responded properly to a threat, and he's hopeful that with the investigative report, there will be a more balanced view about what happened at Haditha.

Mr. MARK ZAID (Defense Attorney): Without a doubt, the way the case has been looking so far is significantly different from the case that the government has been portraying and certainly that the Iraqis have been portraying.

BOWMAN: Wuterich faces a pretrial hearing next month.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, the Pentagon.

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