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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

A Marine sergeant is facing multiple murder charges in the biggest criminal case that's emerged so far from the war in Iraq.

Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich led a squad that's accused of killing 24 Iraqis, including several women and children. This past March, Sergeant Wuterich gave an interview to CBS's "60 Minutes" during which he expressed remorse.

(Soundbite of TV show "60 Minutes")

Staff Sergeant FRANK WUTERICH (U.S. Marine Corps): Nothing that I can possibly say to, you know, make up or, you know, make well, you know, the deaths of those women and children. You know - and I am absolutely sorry that that happened that day.

SIEGEL: The incident happened back in November 2005 near the town of Haditha. Wuterich and his men were responding to a bomb attack on a military convoy that claimed the life of a Marine driver. To date, the sergeant was in a courtroom at Camp Pendleton in California.

NPR's John McChesney is there covering the case and joins us now.

John, no one, not even the sergeant, disputes that these Iraqi civilians were killed, so what's the point of the proceedings?

JOHN McCHESNEY: Well, the question here is whether or not this occurred in a normal course of combat clearing of houses or whether it was a revenge rampage, as the prosecution charges, for the death of a very favorite Marine who'd just been killed by an IED. So the argument back and forth between defense and prosecution is, was this a legitimate carrying out of the rules of engagement as the Marines knew them.

This happened in a very hostile village. Marines had been killed here earlier. And the answer to that question that I just said hasn't been answered yet. I mean, they just keep going around it.

SIEGEL: What about the sergeant's men? What role are they playing in this case?

McCHESNEY: Well, there were four enlisted men charged. One of them has been given immunity for his testimony. He's been let off, basically. Then another one, Lance Corporal Stephen Tatem, his case is still pending before General Mattis, who's the commander here at Camp Pendleton. But his investigative officer says there's insufficient evidence to convict him so he's recommended they do not go to court martial. Another, Lance Corporal Justin Sharratt, who was charged with murder as well, has been dismissed. All charges have been dismissed by General James Mattis, the commander of Camp Pendleton. He said he was just following his training and his instincts as he'd been taught as a Marine. So Sergeant Wuterich is the last case of the enlisted men to stand before hearing. And I have to say this is a hearing and not a trial. This is a preliminary hearing.

SIEGEL: Now, military prosecutors say it was unpremeditated murder. What are the sergeant's lawyers saying in his defense?

McCHESNEY: Well, the sergeant's lawyers are arguing that all the rules of engagement were followed here, that his squad was receiving hostile fire from the houses that they cleared. The houses were considered hostile. A hostile house can be cleared with grenades and machine-gun fire, and that's precisely what these men did - killing 19 others inside the house.

A monkey wrench for Sergeant Wuterich may be Sergeant Dela Cruz, and he is testifying in his exchange for immunity that Sergeant Wuterich gunned down five men who were standing next to a taxi. He says their hands were in the air and Sergeant Wuterich just shot them down. The lawyers for Wuterich say he's lying and that they can prove it through forensic evidence.

We should keep in mind here, Robert, that the Marines are much harder on those in charge. In a previous case, the Hamdania case, where one Iraqi civilian was killed, all of the enlisted men got off rather lightly, but the squad leader got 14 years. So Wuterich may be up against a harder sentence.

SIGEL: Thank you, John. That's NPR's John McChesney, coming to us from Camp Pendleton, California.

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