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Marines Charged with Murder in Haditha Killings

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. On the edge of a holiday weekend, I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

When the criminal charges arrived, here's what they said: four American Marines are accused of murders. Four more face charges that they failed to expose the murders. All this relates to an episode that as prosecutors tell it could be one of the darkest moments for the United States in Iraq. The Marines are accused of killing nearly two dozen civilians in the town of Haditha last year. It happened after one of their squad-mates was blown up by a roadside bomb.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Haditha was known as a hotbed of insurgent activity, so members of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment's Kilo Company were on their guard as they moved through the town in a convoy, early on the morning of November 19th, 2005. That's when Colonel Stewart Navarre says one of the Humvees was blown up by a roadside bomb or IED.

Colonel STEWART NAVARRE (United States Marine Corps): One Marine was killed and two were wounded by the explosion. Over the next several hours, 24 Iraqi men, women, and children died in the vicinity of the IED explosion.

HORSLEY: The Marine's original account, delivered in a press release the following day, said most of the Iraqi civilians had been killed by the roadside bomb itself, while others died in a firefight that followed. Col. Navarre told a different story yesterday, during a news conference at the Camp Pendleton Marine Base in San Diego.

Col. NAVARRE: We now know with certainty the press release was incorrect, and that none of the civilians were killed by the IED explosion.

HORSLEY: Instead, authorities now say many of the civilians were murdered by Marines. Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich, who led the squad, is charged with personally shooting 12 Iraqis and ordering the killing of six others. He allegedly told his men to shoot first and ask questions later. Three other Marines in the squad have also been charged with murder. If they're found guilty, Navarre says, they could face life in prison.

Col. NAVARRE: The Marine Corps is a close-knit brotherhood, so it is difficult for any Marine to countenance the fact that other Marines might have done something wrong.

HORSLEY: Attorney Neil Puckett, who represents Wuterich, insists the staff sergeant did not do anything wrong. He denies Wuterich filed a false report or encouraged his squad-mate to do so, as authorities have charged. And, Puckett says, while there's no question Iraqi civilians were killed that day, he says they were simply caught in a crossfire as Wuterich and other Marines battled insurgents.

Mr. NEIL PUCKETT (Attorney for Accused Marine): Iraq has been, for a long time, a very, very dangerous environment that puts people on a hair trigger as far as protecting themselves. Everything he did that day was in an effort to protect his Marines from any further harm after the IED went off.

HORSLEY: Authorities say Wuterich and his squad mates went beyond defending themselves, and that Wuterich showed wanton disregard for human life. Theresa Sharratt, whose son Justin is also charged, accuses the Marine Corps of abandoning her son.

Mr. THERESA SHARRATT (Parent of Accused Marine): Justin has given everything to his country, and has done nothing to disgrace it. To the Marine Corps, I simply say, shame on you.

HORSLEY: In addition to the enlisted Marines, authorities have filed dereliction of duty charges against four officers, including the former battalion and company commanders. They are accused of failing to adequately investigate the Haditha killings, even though it was quickly apparent that a roadside bomb was not the whole story. Only an inquiry by Time magazine forced the Marine Corps to take a closer look at the incident. Navarre says while criminal investigators probe the actual killings in Haditha, Major General Eldon Bargewell examined how they were handled by the chain of command.

Col. NAVARRE: The Bargewell investigation found that the Marines were adequately trained, but the reporting of the incident up the chain of command was inaccurate and untimely.

HORSLEY: The charges against the officers in this case carry lighter possible sentences, ranging from six months to five years, but the crackdown on officers is still the widest of the Iraq war. Some, like the group Human Rights Watch, would like to see even tougher sanctions, arguing that officers set the tone for how the war is fought. All of those charged in the Haditha case remain free while the military decides whether a general court martial is warranted.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, San Diego. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.

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