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Marine Faces Trial for Killings in Haditha

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

A military hearing comes today for Sgt. Frank Wuterich. He was the leader of a Marine squad that killed 24 civilians, including women and children, in the Iraqi town of Haditha. Sgt. Wuterich is charged with 18 counts of unpremeditated murder. It's the largest criminal case to emerge from the war in Iraq.

NPR's John McChesney has more.

JOHN McCHESNEY: On the morning of November 19, 2005, as Sgt. Frank Wuterich's squad approached Haditha, a roadside bomb killed a popular Marine. Sgt. Wuterich says the dismembered body is a sight he will never forget. About 100 yards away, Wuterich, who had never been in combat before, saw a taxi with five young men in it. In an interview with CBS' "60 Minutes'" Scott Pelley, Wuterich says the men were ordered out of the car.

(Soundbite of TV show "60 Minutes")

Sgt. FRANK WUTERICH (U.S. Marines): They get out of the car. As they were going around, they started to take off, so I shot at them.

Mr. SCOTT PELLEY (Reporter, "60 Minutes"): They were running away from you?

Sgt. WUTERICH: Yes.

.Mr. PELLEY: You shot them in the back?

Sgt. WUTERICH: Yes.

McCHESNEY: Shooting suspected bombers running away is permitted under Marine rules of engagement. Nothing suspicious was found in the taxi, however. One Marine, who received immunity, testified that Sgt. Wuterich shot the men while they held their hands on their heads. Defense lawyers say that Marine is lying and they can prove it.

Then the platoon commander gave the go-ahead to clear nearby houses and the squad used what's called the dynamic method: rolling grenades through doorways and going in shooting. Under the rules of engagement, positive identification of a source of hostile fire is required. "60 Minutes'" Scott Pelley asked Wuterich about that.

(Soundbite of TV show "60 Minutes")

Mr. PELLEY: How did you identify this house as a threat?

Sgt. WUTERICH: Because that was the only logical place that the fire could come through, seeing the environment there.

McCHESNEY: But defense lawyer Mark Zaid says Wuterich wasn't just guessing, that he was told by others that fire was coming from that house.

Mr. MARK ZAID (Attorney for Sgt. Frank Wuterich): Marines are permitted to rely upon the words of other Marines. That's how the military combat functionality works.

McCHESNEY: It's still a matter of dispute as to whether the squad was under fire. After clearing the first house, where five people were killed, the squad cleared a second house thinking the gunmen had fled there.

Again, Sgt. Wuterich and Scott Pelley on "60 Minutes."

(Soundbite of TV show, "60 Minutes")

Sgt. WUTERICH: We went through that house much the same, prepping the rooms with grenades, going in there and eliminating the threat, engaging the targets.

Mr. PELLEY: But there was no threat?

Sgt. WUTERICH: There probably wasn't, now that I look back on it. But there, in that time, yes, I believed there was a threat.

McCHESNEY: In that house, four men, two women and four children - aged 14, nine, three and two - were killed. The women and children were huddled on a bed. When platoon Commander Lieutenant William Kallop later saw the gory scene inside the houses, he asked one squad member, what the crap? Where are the bad guys.

The good news for Sgt. Wuterich is that investigative officers have recommended that two squad members not be court-marshaled. What could be bad news for Wuterich is that the investigative officer said that Sgt. Wuterich had fired first and that the squad member was simply following his lead. But attorney Mark Zaid says he's not worried for his client.

Mr. ZAID: All of the men that day acted in furtherance of the rules of engagement that they were taught in class and learned operationally on the ground.

McCHESNEY: Sgt. Wuterich had this to say about the killings on CBS' "60 Minutes," an interview that will be rebroadcast this Sunday.

(Soundbite of TV show, "60 Minutes")

Sgt. WUTERICH: Nothing that I can possibly say to, you know, make up or, you know, make well the, you know, the deaths of those women and children, you know? And I am absolutely sorry that that happened that day.

McCHESNEY: Sgt. Wuterich is the last enlisted man to face murder charges in this case. Three officers still face charges of failing to report and investigate the incident properly.

John McChesney, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

John McChesney
Since 1979 senior correspondent John McChesney has been with NPR, where he has served as national editor (responsible for domestic news) and senior foreign editor. Over the course of his career with NPR, McChesney covered a variety of beats and traveled extensively throughout Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and Asia. His reports can be heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, and newscasts.
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