Before you read the following reports, you should know that an officer has previously testified intelligence reports were received and disseminated to this Marine squad leader, just prior to the incident in Haditha, that an ambush involving an IED and a white car in the near future was likely. That said, read the reports:
CAMP PENDLETON, California (Reuters) – Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, the U.S. Marine squad leader accused of leading a November 2005 massacre of 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha, said on Thursday that he regretted the deaths but insisted he had acted properly to keep his men alive.
“I will bear the memory of the events of that day forever and will always mourn the unfortunate deaths of the innocent Iraqis who were killed during our response to the attack,” Wuterich, 27, told an evidentiary hearing in his first military court testimony.
“Because families got killed that day and I can look at my family and I know I would not want that to happen to them,” said Wuterich, who has three young daughters. His wife and parents watched from the back of the courtroom.
The Haditha incident, one of a series in which U.S. forces mistreated [Editor — note that Reuters left out the word ‘allegedly’] or killed Iraqi civilians, sparked international anger when it was first reported last year.
Wearing desert camouflage fatigues with sleeves rolled above his tattooed forearms, Wuterich described a complicated combat situation that he said required lethal force.
“Based on the information I had at the time, based on the situation, I made the best decision I could have at the time,” he said calmly and with confidence.
An investigating officer hearing the evidence will recommend whether the case should go to trial. If convicted on the charges of murdering 17 Iraqi civilians, Wuterich could be sentenced to life in prison.
Wuterich, one of five Marines still facing legal proceedings over the Haditha killings, admitted he shot five Iraqis near a white car after a member of his unit was killed by a roadside bomb.
“Engaging was the only choice: the threat had to be neutralized,” he said at a small military courtroom in Camp Pendleton north of San Diego. “They were not complying and, in fact, they were starting to run.”
Other witnesses from his squad have testified that the Iraqis had their hands in the air and were not running. Marines did not find any weapons at the scene.
Wuterich, the squad leader serving a seven-month tour of duty in Iraqi, said he then moved to clear two houses. “The four of us aggressively advanced on the house and on approach I advised the team something like shoot first and ask questions later or don’t hesitate to shoot,” Wuterich said, reading from a prepared statement. “I can’t remember my exact words but I wanted them to understand that hesitation to shoot would only result in the four of us being killed.”
The Marines fired grenades into the houses then shot the inhabitants, including women and children, resulting in another 19 dead. Wuterich said he did not fire any shots inside the houses and only later learned women and children were among the dead.
Some witnesses have said such a “shoot first and ask questions later” logic was improper. [Editor — Also see below]
Even as he described horrific deaths, Wuterich projected an earnest, level-headed demeanor that contrasted with some other U.S. soldiers who have been tried over Iraq abuses. Answering questions from his lawyer, Wuterich said he enjoyed Iraqi culture and sometimes played soccer with local children.
He also said he was disturbed when a fellow Marine whose testimony is key in the case — and whose charges were dismissed in exchange for this testimony — urinated on the skull of an Iraqi killed near the white car. [Editor — To be clear, the witness admitted the he, not SSgt Wuterich, urinated on the dead person’s skull]
In regards to Reuters’ reporting, “Some witnesses have said such a “shoot first and ask questions later” logic was improper,” that was at least less than half the truth. Here is a far more detailed report on this from the North County Times (serves San Diego and Riverside Counties, CA):
Evidence called inconclusive in Wuterich trial
CAMP PENDLETON — A federal agent said Wednesday that he couldn’t tell if five Iraqi civilians killed nearly two years ago in the city of Haditha were running away when they were shot, as a Marine staff sergeant charged with the killings contends. Special Agent Thomas Brady said his reconstruction of the scene outside a car where the five men were slain moments after a roadside bomb destroyed a Humvee and killed a lance corporal the morning of Nov. 19, 2005, was inconclusive on that point.
Brady’s testimony came on the third day of an Article 32 hearing for Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, who is accused of killing 17 Iraqi civilians that day. The hearing will determine whether Wuterich faces court-martial for the largest civilian slaying case to arise out of the Iraq war.
Brady, a Naval Criminal Investigative Service investigator, also said his work clearly showed that two people shot the men, bolstering a defense contention that their client, Wuterich, may not have fired the first shots.
Wuterich’s attorneys contend that the reconstruction suggests that while their client shot at those men, it was Sgt. Sanick Dela Cruz and not Wuterich who fired the fatal shots. Wuterich is charged with killing 17 of the 24 Iraqi civilians slain in Haditha and is one of three enlisted men from Camp Pendleton charged in the slayings.
The men from the car were shot moments after emerging from their car. Wuterich maintains that the men were running, a signal he interpreted to mean they were insurgents involved in the bombing and therefore could be lawfully shot.
Dela Cruz has testified the men were not running and several stood with their hands raised over their heads when Wuterich shot them. Dela Cruz also has acknowledged also firing at those men, but testified last week he did not do so until after Wuterich began shooting.
“There were two shooting positions,” Brady said under questioning from Wuterich’s lead attorney, Neal Puckett, who also attempted to show from the reconstruction that Dela Cruz fired first.
In other testimony, Wuterich was described as a respected squad leader whose dealings with Iraqi civilians prior to the Nov. 19 incident were seen as positive.
“He was the least aggressive,” said Staff Sgt. Travis Fields, a member of the Kilo Company platoon from Camp Pendleton’s 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment involved in the Haditha killings. “He was the calmest in the squad in interacting with Iraqis.”
Fields also testified that Wuterich had a good grasp on the rules of engagement, rules prosecutors contend he ignored in leading his squad in a series of “house clearing” operations following the bombing.
The house clearing began with Wuterich leading his Marines in the shooting of a man who came to the door of the first for four homes stormed that day, according to undisputed testimony. That was followed by the shooting of a second man in that home and culminating when a grenade was thrown inside a bedroom followed by indiscriminate shooting of every person inside, the testimony has shown.
That tactic was not endorsed by Fields, who said some form of positive identification should have taken place. Asked about a statement that Wuterich made to investigators last year, that he had told his men to “shoot first and ask questions later,” Fields said such a command was improper. “It goes directly against what the rules of engagement say,” he said.
Another witness, Capt. Alfonso Capers Jr., an instructor who teaches Marines about the rules of engagement, acknowledged under sharp questioning that there was no absolute standard given Marines in 2005 on how to clear rooms inside homes declared hostile and where Marines believed insurgents were hiding.
The house clearing operation had been ordered by Lt. William Kallop, the platoon commander who responded to the scene of the bombing and issued the directive to Wuterich.
“If there’s a threat in there, your first job is to eliminate the threat,” Capers said.
Are you, like me, wondering why Reuters left all that out?
You can keep up to date on the Haditha incident by visiting the War Chronicle.