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Marines charged with murder in deaths of Iraqi civilians

WASHINGTON—Four Marines from Camp Pendleton, Calif., were charged Thursday with multiple counts of murder and several lesser charges in the shooting deaths last year of 24 unarmed Iraqi civilians, including several women and children, in the Iraqi town of Haditha.

Four Marine officers, including a lieutenant colonel, were charged with trying to cover up the crimes.

The charges made the Haditha killings the largest criminal case to arise from the deaths of civilians since U.S. troops entered Iraq in March 2003, and the first to implicate officers in the events.

None of those charged is in custody, and a Marine spokesman said he had no information on when they might be arrested. Article 32 hearings, in which a panel of Marine judges determines if there's enough evidence to try the men, are likely to be held in the spring.

The Nov. 19, 2005, killings occurred after an improvised bomb exploded on a four-vehicle Marine convoy passing through Haditha, killing one Marine and wounding two others.

A day after the attack, 2nd Marine Division issued a press release saying that 15 civilians riding in a bus were killed in the bomb blast and that the Marines and Iraqi army troops killed eight insurgents in a subsequent firefight.

But Iraqi witnesses in Haditha told a local human rights investigator that the Marines went through three houses after the attack, killing 24 people, including women and children. Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, who was then the No. 2 general in Iraq, ordered an investigation about three months later, after a Time magazine reporter asked the military for comment.

After the story broke in March, eyewitnesses provided McClatchy Newspapers with a graphic account of the incident. A 13-year-old girl said the Marines shot and killed eight members of her family, including her 3-year-old brother.

Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich, 26, of Meriden, Conn., a squad leader, faces the most serious charges, including 18 counts of unpremeditated murder. He's alleged to have told other Marines to "shoot first and ask questions later."

Wuterich also was charged with soliciting Cpl. Sanick P. De La Cruz, 24, to lie and tell investigators that they shot four of the victims, all men, after they opened fire on the Marines' convoy and ran away after the bomb exploded. The men didn't fire on the convoy, according to charge sheets in the case. Wuterich was charged with making a false official statement to investigators.

De La Cruz, who's since been promoted to sergeant, was charged with five counts of unpremeditated murder and making a false official statement with the intent to deceive.

Lance Cpl. Justin L. Sharratt, 22, was charged with three counts of unpremeditated murder.

Lance Cpl. Stephen B. Tatum, 25, was charged with two counts of unpremeditated murder, four counts of negligent homicide and assaulting two other Iraqis. At least two of the people Tatum is charged with killing were women.

Four officers who weren't present at the time of the killings face a host of lesser charges for attempting to cover up what happened.

Lt. Col. Jeffrey R. Chessani, 42, the Marines' battalion commander, was charged with violating a lawful order and two counts of dereliction of duty for failing to investigate and accurately report a war crime.

1st Lieutenant Andrew A. Grayson, 25, their platoon commander, was charged with two counts of dereliction of duty for failing to report and investigate a war crime. He also faces charges of making a false statement and obstructing justice.

Capt. Lucas McConnell, 31, their company commander, faces two counts of dereliction of duty for failing to investigate and report a war crime.

Capt. Randy W. Stone, 34, a military lawyer, faces one count of violating a lawful order and two counts of dereliction of duty for failing to ensure that a proper investigation into the killings was conducted and that it was reported up the chain of command.

The four enlisted Marines could face life in prison if convicted of the murder charges, plus dishonorable discharges and forfeiture of all pay and allowances.

Tatum faces an additional three years for the negligent homicide charge and eight years for the assault charge. De La Cruz faces five additional years if found guilty of making a false statement. Wuterich faces 10 more years if he's convicted of urging De La Cruz to lie and making a false statement to investigators.

The four officers also face dismissal from the service, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and jail sentences ranging from six months to five years. Chessani and McConnell were relieved of their commands shortly after their return from Iraq last spring.

In a written statement accompanying the charges, Col. Stewart Navarre, chief of staff for Marine Corps West, said that a second administrative investigation completed in June had found that the Marines were properly trained in the rules of engagement and laws of war, but that reporting of the incident through the military chain of command was inaccurate and untimely.

It's unclear when the report will be made public. Navarre said it was still part of the criminal investigation.

Mark S. Zaid, an attorney for Wuterich based in Washington, said his client plans to plead not guilty and believes he acted lawfully while trying to protect himself and his Marines.

"It's going to come down to a very simple question of how do you want Marines to react under fire, what was their training and what did they believe their training to be?" Zaid said in a telephone interview. "It's our position, though tragic, they operated under the rules of engagement as they knew them, trying to save their own lives, and the end result was something they did not plan."

The Haditha case is the worst atrocity in which U.S. troops in Iraq have been implicated so far, and Chessani is the highest-ranking U.S. military officer to be charged in the connection with the deaths of Iraqi civilians.

About two dozen U.S. service members have been charged with killing Iraqi civilians during military operations or while they were in military custody.

But until now, those charged have been lower-ranking enlisted personnel who were directly involved in the killings. The Haditha case is the first in which officers in the chain of command have been charged with covering up the crime.

The Haditha case and a second one that was uncovered by McClatchy Newspapers in the town of Hamdania, west of Baghdad, caused a major reappraisal of Marine behavior in Iraq that included a visit to every Marine camp by the Marine Corps commandant.

Seven Camp Pendleton Marines and a Navy medic were charged with murdering an Iraqi man in the Hamdania case. The Marines are accused of snatching Hashim Ibrahim Awad, 52, from his home in the middle of the night on April 10 and then shooting him to death. According to the prosecution, they then planted a shovel next to his body and claimed that he was digging a hole for a roadside bomb.

Four Marines are preparing to stand trial in that case. Three other Marines and the Navy medic accepted plea deals and reduced sentences in exchange for their testimony.

The highest-ranking among that group, Sgt. Lawrence G. Hutchins III, of Plymouth, Mass., was arraigned at Camp Pendleton earlier this month. He's scheduled to stand trial in April.


(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.