Frank Wuterich arrives at court with lawyer Neal PuckettIn the end, only one of the eight Marines charged with participating in the Haditha Massacre may go to prison -- and possibly only three months at most.
The outcome of the longest-running criminal prosecution to emerge from the Iraq War, a case described as that war's version of the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam, was only slightly surprising.
The deck had been stacked in favor of the Marines because of their argument that the rules of engagement regarding when civilians could be fired upon was unclear. While this may have been true to an extent, that does not explain why a 76-year-old wheelchair-bound man and unarmed women and children were mowed down in a horrific incident that took 24 lives.
My surprise concerns the fact that the Frank Wuterich, the last Marine to be tried and who once faced possibly 152 years in prison, will do any time at all. The staff sergeant and squad leader had entered a not-guilty pleas to all charges but under a plea deal pleaded guilty yesterday to a single charge of dereliction of duty.
It is probable that prosecutors decided that a short time in the brig was a satisfactory trade-off for the possibility that the jury of battle-tested Irai veterans would agree with Wuterich and he would go free, so they cut a plea deal with him under which a three-month sentence may be imposed later today, as well as two-thirds forfeiture of pay, and a rank demotion to private. The presiding judge may also decide that the plea itself will be the sole punishment.
Reaction to the plea agreement broke along predictable lines: Supporters of the Marines cheered it while Iraqis and human rights activists said it yet again proved that American soldiers were not accountable. Charges had previously been dropped against six others involved in the massacre. A seventh Marine was acquitted.
Bing West, a combat Marine in Vietnam and former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, called the plea agreement "the right conclusion to a tragedy," while Gary Solis, a former Marine prosecutor who teaches the law of armed conflict at Georgetown University, said Haditha could become a case study in how not to prosecute suspected war crimes.
The killings still fuel anger in Iraq and were the primary reason behind demands that US troops not be given immunity from their court system.
My own view is that the deal further reinforces a belief in the international community that the U.S. military has not held its troops accountable nor met the standards of conduct it has attempted to impose far from home.
One Marine, who was granted immunity in exchange for his testimony, told of how he had urinated on a dead civilian's head, which s reminiscent of a video made public earlier this month in which four Marines are seen urinating on bloodstained corpses of Afghan militants.
"This [plea agreement] has contributed significantly to the cynicism of people in the region about America's rhetoric -- about America standing for principles," said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. "When push comes to shove, when it comes to looking at the misconduct of [U.S.] . . . soldiers, there is no accountability."
On a quiet morning in November 2005, Marines from Camp Pendleton's 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment -- nicknamed the "Thundering Third"-- were running a supply convoy through Haditha, which was then an insurgent stronghold. A bomb erupted under one vehicle, killing Lance Corporal Miguel Terrazas and injuring two others.
The surviving Marines turned their attention to a nearby residential area that some believed was the source of additional small-arms fire. While preparing their assault, five men pulled up in a white car. Wuterich shot them to death.
According to one Marine's testimony, Wuterich told his comrades that they should tell investigators the men had been running away from the bomb; in fact, the Marine testified, the men were "just standing around," some with their hands raised and fingers interlocked over their heads.
Wuterich and the others then attacked two homes with M-16s and fragmentation grenades. The situation degenerated into chaos; the homes filled with smoke and debris, and one Marine acknowledged shooting at "silhouettes." Others said their only indication that the homes were "hostile" was that their fellow Marines were shooting.
A short time later, the Marine Corps released an official version of events: 15 Iraqis had been killed in the bombing, and the others had been killed in an ensuing firefight — none of which was true.
The staff sergeant said yesterday during a brief hearing on the plea agreement that he regretted telling his men to "shoot first, ask questions later."
Photograph by The Associated Press