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December 21st, 2006 - Eight Marines Charged in Haditha Case
By Mark Walker, Will Bennett & Teri Figueroa
North County Times
December 21, 2006
Camp Pendleton - Marine Corps officials on Thursday charged eight Camp Pendleton Marines in connection with the deaths of 24 Iraqi civilians in the town of Haditha in November 2005.
The charges vary by individual, and include accusations of unpremeditated murder, dereliction of duty, false official statements and obstruction of justice.
Four enlisted men were charged with unpremeditated murder and other crimes; four officers face charges for allegedly failing to report or investigate the deaths of the Iraqi civilians after the Nov. 19, 2005 incident, which happened after a roadside bomb exploded in a convey of Humvees carrying U.S. troops. One of the troops was killed, two others were injured. In the aftermath of the explosion, 24 Iraqis, including woman and children, in nearby homes and a taxi were killed.
The Marine Corps announced this afternoon that it has charged the 26-year-old squad leader, Staff Sgt. Wuterich, with 13 counts of unpremeditated murder, as well as with charges related to soliciting another to commit an offense and making a false official statement.
Unpremeditated murder is the rough equivalent of second-degree murder charges.
The others charged include:
- Sgt. Sanick Dela Cruz, 24, was charged with five counts of unpremeditated murder, as well as making a false official statement.
- Lance Cpl. Stephen B. Tatum, 25, faces two counts of unpremeditated murder, and one count of negligent homicide (related to the deaths of four victims), and one count of assault.
- Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt, 22, is charged with three counts of unpremeditated murder.
- Each of the four officers facing charges are accused of dereliction of duty. The charges also accuse Lt. Col Jeffrey Chessani of wrongfully failing to accurately report and investigated a suspected violation of the law of war. The 42-year-old also has two counts of dereliction of duty.
- Capt. Randy Stone is charged with violating a lawful order, in that he allegedly failed to insure accurate reporting. the 34 year old also faces two counts of dereliction of duty.
- Capt. Lucas McConnell, 31, faces one charge of dereliction of duty.
- First Lt. Andrew Grayson, 25, is charged with dereliction of duty, false officials statements and obstruction of justice.
Attorneys for the some of the men from Kilo Company of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment have said for months that the killings were the result of a legitimate action following a massive explosion that killed Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas of El Paso, Texas.
The Iraqi victims included six children and five women, all of whom died inside homes near the site of the bombing.
The accused Marines returned from Iraq in April. They were not taken into custody, but were assigned to tasks at Camp Pendleton as the investigation into what happened in Haditha, a city 125 miles northwest of Baghdad, ran its course.
Neal Puckett, the attorney for Wuterich, said his client "does not think the Marine Corps is abandoning him." He also said his client, from Meriden, Conn., has no plans to cooperate with prosecutors because "he didn't do anything wrong."
"Everything he did that day was in an effort to protect his Marines after the IED (improvised explosive device) went off," Puckett said. "We maintain the tactics used that day were within his right to use."
Puckett also noted that Wuterich's wife, Marisol, is in the hospital today, expecting to deliver the couple's third child.
Tatum's attorney confirmed Thursday morning that his client would be charged in the matter. However, that attorney, Jack Zimmerman said Tatum was not at Camp Pendleton today and has not had the charges read to him yet.
Gary Myers, attorney for Sharratt, said his client was also notified this morning of the charges.
Sharratt, Myers said, will not be jailed at this point but he did not know if his client would have other restrictions, such as not being allowed to leave base.
"Our position is now and always has been that these were combat-related deaths," Myers said.
The Haditha incident spawned two investigations, one looking into whether the Marines had committed war crimes, the other probing the reporting of the incident up the chain of command.
Dozens of reporters and camera crews descending on the base today for the formal charging announcement against the men and about what actions are being taken against Marine commanders, whose handling of the initial report of the civilian deaths and their subsequent investigation of what happened came under question.
The leveling of murder charges is not a surprise, according to one military legal expert.
"If we want to have a justice system that is taken seriously around the world, then we have to be capable of disciplining our own, of at least trying our own," said Kathleen Duignan, executive director of the Institute of Military Justice in Washington.
She said the likelihood of any plea deals for any of the men will depend on the strength of the evidence the prosecution has against the men.
If the evidence is strong against the men, then defense attorneys may be inclined to negotiate, she said.
"But, it will depend on whether the defense thinks it's in their best interests to roll the dice," Duignan said.
Reached by phone in Washington on Thursday, former military attorney and retired West Point Professor Gary Solis said that a lack of forensic evidence will complicate things for the prosecution.
"The lack of a body will make it difficult to prove the cause of death," Solis said, referring to the fact that U.S. officials were unable to obtain permission from the families of those who died to exhume and conduct autopsies on the bodies of those who were killed in the incident.
He said that he knows Wuterich's attorney Gary Puckett, who he referred to as an "outstanding legal mind."
"He is a first-rate defense council," Solis said.
He added that while he wouldn't be surprised to see plea deals worked out between prosecutors and some of the "lesser players" in the case.
Solis said that maximum penalty that the accused could face for unpremeditated murder would be life in prison.
The Haditha case unfolded when the Marine patrol aboard four Humvees was passing through the city about 7:30 a.m. on Nov. 19, 2005.
Several of the Marines there that day have told investigators and the civilian attorneys they have hired have said they were told that minutes after the explosion the men were attacked by insurgents armed with AK-47 assault rifles, shots they said were coming from one or more nearby homes.
The first Iraqis to die were five men who emerged from a car and began running. None of those men have been determined by investigators to be insurgents.
The squad radioed word of the attack to commanders, and over the next few hours stormed through several homes in what they said was a search for their attackers.
The shooting that took place in two of the homes appeared justified, sources close to the case have said, but the assault on a third home may have violated the Marine Corps' rules of engagement.
Those rules allow a combat operation against any source of fire or suspected insurgent stronghold, but are clear in directing that lethal force not be used against children or apparent civilians unless absolutely necessary.
One week after major elements of the 3rd Battalion returned from Iraq in April, then-1st Marine Division Maj. Gen. Richard Natonksi, announced he was relieving the now-accused Chessani of his post as commanding officer of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment also known as the "Thundering Third."
The mix of politics and the military justice system has been a major component in the Haditha story since it was first reported. Anti-war voices point to Haditha as the Iraq war comparison to the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War in which U.S. Army troops killed hundreds of Vietnamese villagers. As in the My Lai case, politicians say the stress faced by U.S. troops in Iraq facing an uniformed enemy in an urban environment is a major factor in what happened at Haditha.
Two months after Time magazine wrote the first story on the Haditha incident, U.S. Rep. John Murtha, D-Penn., in May said the Marines overreacted to the death of Terrazas and, acting in rage, "killed innocent civilians in cold blood."
A leading voice in Congress for repositioning some U.S. troops to Kuwait and bringing the rest home, Murtha's remarks prompted a firestorm on Capitol Hill and led to a libel lawsuit filed against him by Wuterich. Murtha, a former Marine, has refused an offer to settle the suit by issuing a public apology and it is uncertain if his position as a federal lawmaker shields him from the suit.
Theresa Sharratt, mother of one of the enlisted Marines said to be facing charges, Lance. Cpl. Justin Sharratt, also is expected to be on the base and speak to the media this afternoon.
Sharratt's sister, Jaclyn Sharratt, reached by phone as she checked in at the base Thursday, said that she has faith that things will turn out well for her brother.
"We have faith and belief in them and know they did the right thing," she said. "They just followed the rules of engagement."
She said her family has been under the stress of not knowing what was coming since March.
"It's real now, not something hypothetical," she said. "Now that it's reality, we are just going to have to deal with it."
In his lawsuit, Wuterich provided the public account from any of the troops there that day about what happened.
In the lawsuit, Wuterich said five men in a taxi that came upon the scene shortly after the bombing were shot when they fled the vehicle and ignored orders in Arabic. The suit said the military's rules of engagement allowed troops to "shoot suspicious people fleeing a bombing. Therefore in following that policy the Marines opened fire killing the men."
A short time later, Wuterich's suit contends, AK-47 shots were heard and Marines saw bullets striking the ground near their position. A four-man team that included Wuterich entered one of the homes, tossed a fragmentation grenade into a room where they heard voices and then fired a series of "clearing shots." That pattern was repeated in two other homes.
"Any accusation that the Marines 'executed' civilians or deliberately targeted noncombatants is either a horrendous misunderstanding or intentional lie," Wuterich's suit contends.
Lawyers for other Marines involved in the incident have said Wuterich's account is consistent with what their clients have told them.
Critics of the case have contended that witnesses at Haditha, located in the heart of the dangerous Anbar province known as the Sunni Triangle and peppered with insurgents, have misled investigators.
The critics also point to the fact that none of the victims have been exhumed for autopsy because of resistance from their families and therefore no concrete forensic evidence of how they died is available.
Earlier news stories had reported that one of the men who would be charged would be 1st Lt. William T. Kallop - the commanding officer of Kilo Company who was the only officer at the scene of the Haditha incident. Kallop was not targeted in the charges filed Thursday.
By Martin Asser
December 21st, 2006
Haditha is an agricultural community of about 90,000 inhabitants on the banks of the Euphrates north-west of Baghdad.
It lies in the huge western province of Anbar, which has been the heartland of the insurgency since US troops led the invasion of Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein in 2003.
It is a dangerous place for the US marines who control this part of Iraq - and for the inhabitants, caught between insurgents and American troops.
On the morning of 19 November 2005, the Subhani neighbourhood was the scene of an event that has become like the regular pulse beat of the insurgency - a roadside bomb targeting a US military patrol.
It killed 20-year-old Lance Corp Miguel ("TJ") Terrazas, driving one of four humvee vehicles in the patrol, and injured two other marines.
A simple US military statement hinted at the bloody chain of events which the attack started - though subsequent scrutiny showed it to be far from the truth.
It said: "A US marine and 15 civilians were killed yesterday from the blast of a roadside bomb in Haditha.
"Immediately following the bombing, gunmen attacked the convoy with small arms fire. Iraqi army soldiers and marines returned fire, killing eight insurgents and wounding another."
The tragedy of Haditha may have been left at that - just another statistic of "war-torn" Iraq: a place too dangerous to be reported properly by journalists, where openness is not in the interests of political and military circles, and the sheer scale of death numbs the senses.
However, a day after the incident, local journalist Taher Thabet got his video camera out and filmed scenes that - whatever they were - were not the aftermath of a roadside bombing.
The bodies of women and children, still in their nightclothes, apparently shot in their own homes; interior walls and ceilings peppered with bullet holes; bloodstains on the floor.
Mr Thabet's tape prompted an investigation by the Iraqi human rights group Hammurabi, which passed details onto the US weekly magazine Time in January 2006.
Before publishing its account on 19 March, the magazine passed the tape to US military commanders in Baghdad, who initiated a preliminary investigation.
Following their findings, the official version was changed to say that, after the roadside bomb, the 15 civilians had been accidentally shot by marines during a gun fight with insurgents.
Nevertheless, on 9 March the top US commanders in Baghdad began a criminal investigation, led by the Naval Criminal Investigation Service (NCIS).
On 7 April three officers in charge of troops in Haditha were also stripped of their command and reassigned.
‘Pretended to die’
Eyewitness accounts suggest that comrades of TJ Terrazas, far from coming under enemy fire, went on the rampage in Haditha after his death.
Twelve-year-old Safa Younis appears in a Hammurabi video saying she was in one of three houses where troops came in and indiscriminately killed family members.
"They knocked at our front door and my father went to open it. They shot him dead from behind the door and then they shot him again," she says in the video.
"Then one American soldier came in and shot at us all. I pretended to be dead and he didn't notice me."
Hammurabi says eight people died in the house, including Safa's five siblings, aged between 14 and two.
In another house seven people including a child and his 70-year-old grandfather were killed. Four brothers aged 41 to 24 died in a third house. Eyewitnesses said they were forced into a wardrobe and shot.
Outside in the street, US troops are said to have gunned down four students and a taxi driver they had stopped at a roadblock set up after the bombing.
The Pentagon has said little publicly about the Haditha deaths, and in Iraq the incident has caused little controversy - US troops there are already viewed by most Iraqis as trigger-happy and indifferent to civilian casualties.
Now four marines in that group, including Staff Sgt Frank Wuterich, 26, are facing charges of unpremeditated murder.
A further four face lesser charges over alleged failures in investigating and reporting the incident.
The US military has confirmed that 24 Iraqi civilians died in Haditha that day, none of them killed by a roadside bomb.
Col Stewart Navarre, announcing the charges on 21 December 2006, said: "The reporting of the incident up the chain of command was inaccurate and untimely."
The chairman of the US Senate armed services committee, John Warner, says it will hold hearings into the incident and how it was handled.
Media commentators have spoken of it as "Iraq's My Lai" - a reference to the 1968 massacre of 500 villagers in Vietnam.
Democrat congressman John Murtha, a former marine and war veteran, has said the Haditha incident could turn out to be an even bigger scandal than the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal.
External link: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/5033648.stm