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In the last presidential election, the significant issue was Iraq. Last month, the last American troops withdrew from that country. But the U.S. military faces some unfinished business from one of the war's most troubling incidents. In November 2005, in a village called Haditha, a Marine squad killed 24 Iraqis, some of them women and children.

Now, as NPR's Tom Bowman explains, one of those Marines is about to go to trial.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich led the squad of Marines that day in Haditha, and tomorrow he'll face voluntary manslaughter charges.

Here's Sergeant Wuterich's lawyer, Neal Puckett.

NEAL PUCKETT: He's going to be glad to have it over because he knows that he'll be exonerated, the world will know the truth about what happened at Haditha - can't be attributed to his criminal behavior, and he just needs to move on with his life.

BOWMAN: There's still a lot of confusion about what happened that day in Haditha. What is beyond dispute is that Marines came under attack. A roadside bomb exploded, killing a Marine and wounding two others. Then a car pulled up. Five Iraqis were inside, and were ordered out. They were unarmed. Wuterich described what happened on CBS' "60 Minutes" back in 2007.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "60 MINUTES")

STAFF SERGEANT FRANK WUTERICH: They started to take off, so I shot at them.

BOWMAN: All five were killed by Wuterich and another Marine. Wuterich's lawyer, Neal Puckett, says the Marines were within their rights.

PUCKETT: The rules of engagement at the time said that after an IED explosion, if you see a military-age male running, he can be engaged.

BOWMAN: Engaged - meaning the Marines could shoot. But that wasn't the end of it. The Marines said they began taking rifle fire. Wuterich thought it was coming from a nearby house. The Marines tossed grenades, then burst into the house, firing their assault weapons. Wuterich told "60 Minutes" what he saw next.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "60 MINUTES")

WUTERICH: There may have been women in there. There may have been children in there.

BOWMAN: No weapons were found. Wuterich was asked why the Marines didn't stop shooting.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "60 MINUTES")

WUTERICH: My responsibility as a squad leader is to make sure that none of the rest of my guys died or got killed, and at that point, we were still on the assault.

BOWMAN: The Marines charged into another house next door. Again, no weapons were found, and more women and children were killed inside. All told, twenty-four killed. Eleven were women and children. At the heart of the trial is whether the Marines responded appropriately to the threat that day, whether they were following the rules of engagement which govern when a Marine can open fire.

Prosecutors say Wuterich overreacted, that he disregarded the requirement to have a hostile target and positive identification before opening fire. Eight Marines were initially charged in the killings. All but Wuterich either had their charges dismissed or were acquitted. Gary Solis is a law professor and former Marine officer. He says prosecutors are going after Wuterich because he was the leader.

GARY SOLIS: The accusation is that he not only did not control the troops, but more significantly, he actively participated in the offenses that are alleged to have been committed in Haditha.

PUCKETT: How could they have done it? Why would they have done it?

BOWMAN: Again, Wuterich's lawyer, Neal Puckett.

PUCKETT: Those are the kinds of questions that I believe are going to be answered by the witnesses over the course of the month-long trial at Camp Pendleton.

BOWMAN: Puckett won't say how Haditha could have happened, but he says that his client is being singled out, and points to others who were there that day.

PUCKETT: Three enlisted Marines had their charges dismissed, we believe, in an effort to try to improve the very weak case against Staff Sergeant Wuterich.

BOWMAN: So that will be one line of defense. Whether Wuterich will move on with his life or face years in prison will be determined during the military trial. It's expected to last a month. Some 50 witnesses will testify. Gary Solis, the law professor and former Marine, faults military prosecutors for not pressing ahead for a speedier trial.

SOLIS: After six years, memories fade, and the relevance of evidence may even fade. Certainly, evidence may be lost.

BOWMAN: That means, Solis says, that the case may be hard to prove. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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