- The Washington Times - Friday, February 15, 2008

Prosecutors trying two Marines next month in the deaths of 24 civilians in the city of Haditha in 2005 will be relying heavily on evidence sought from three children during a recent trip to Iraq to bolster sagging cases that might not otherwise be winnable, according to court records.

Lt. Col. Paul Ware, who presided at pretrial hearings for Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich and Lance Cpl. Stephen Tatum, warned last summer of the weaknesses inherent in the prosecution’s case — citing a dearth of reliable information from Iraqi witnesses to the events that followed a bomb attack on a Marine convoy. One Marine was killed and two were wounded in the attack.

Col. Ware’s warning apparently was heeded by Lt. Col. Jeffrey Meeks, the judge at Sgt. Wuterich’s court-martial on manslaughter charges, which begins March 3 at Camp Pendleton, Calif.

At Sgt. Wuterich’s arraignment on Jan. 10, Col. Weeks readily approved a request from prosecutors to go to Haditha to videotape interviews with three children, aged 7 to 14, who survived the Marine attacks. The children have refused to come to California to testify.

On Aug. 23, 2007, Col. Ware noted in a posthearing report that “it is likely that [the children] will not testify, which will cause not only issues of exculpable evidence being denied to the defense, but the likelihood that there will be a significant impact on the ability of the government to prove any of the charges.”

Since Col. Ware wrote his report, both Cpl. Tatum, 26, of Edmond, Okla., and Sgt. Wuterich, 27, of Meriden, Conn., have been ordered to face general courts-martial. If convicted, Sgt. Wuterich could be sentenced to as long as 160 years in jail; Cpl. Tatum to 29.

Cpl. Tatum, whose trial is scheduled to begin March 28, is charged with two counts of involuntary manslaughter, aggravated assault and reckless endangerment.

Sgt. Wuterich, who was the squad leader, faces more serious charges. He will be tried on nine counts of voluntary manslaughter, two of aggravated assault, three of reckless endangerment, three of dereliction of duty, and obstruction of justice.

All the charges stem from the deaths of eight persons in a dwelling designated as House 2 to differentiate it from two other houses that also were raided.

Yunis Salim Rasif, 43, was killed as Marines entered the house. The other seven victims — Mr. Rasif’s wife, a visiting relative, and five of the couple’s six children — died when Marines burst into their bedroom and opened fire. The only one to survive the attack was a daughter, Safa, then 13, who escaped by pretending to be dead.

Safa was one of the children the lawyers wanted to interview. The others were a 6-year-old boy a 10-year-old girl who survived a similar attack on the residents in House 1.

The 12-man squad of Marines was returning from a routine resupply mission when an improvised explosive device (IED) exploded under the last of the four vehicles. The driver was killed instantly and his two passengers wounded.

Moments after the explosion, a white car carrying five military-aged Iraqis screeched to a halt fewer than 100 yards away. All five of the men were gunned down by Sgt. Wuterich and another squad member, Cpl. Sanick Dela Cruz.

Sgt. Wuterich claims the men were running away when they were shot, but testimony during his pretrial hearing contradicted his claim. One of the charges against him includes killing “one or more” of the men.

Sgt. Wuterich and Cpl. Tatum claim the squad was receiving enemy fire from the houses, which touched off the raids. Seven persons died in House 1, including a 76-year-old wheelchair-bound grandfather, his 66-year-old wife, and a 4-year-old grandson.

Four other men were killed in still another house, reportedly by Marines, including Sgt. Wuterich, who have said they were acting in self-defense. No one is facing trial in connection with their deaths.

The Nov. 19, 2005, incident is the worst by any single American unit so far in the war.

The courts-martial of Cpl. Tatum and Sgt. Wuterich, plus two officers who will be tried later on charges of dereliction of duty, will be the second Iraq war-related trials held at Camp Pendleton in the last 16 months.

Earlier, seven Marines and a Navy corpsman faced charges of kidnapping and killing a retired Iraqi policeman at Hamdania in April 2006, then creating a scene to try to make it look as if he were planting an IED when he was shot.

Five of the men, including the Navy corpsman, pleaded guilty. The other three were convicted. The only two still in prison are the squad leader, who was sentenced to 15 years, and the squad member who thought up the plan. He is serving eight years.

Still pending are cases against an active duty Marine, Sgt. Jermaine Nelson, and a discharged Marine, former Sgt. Jose L. Nazario Jr. Both cases stem from an incident in Fallujah in November 2004.

They are accused of killing a group of captive insurgents during the battle, which was the largest of the war since the March 2003 invasion. Since Mr. Nazario is no longer in the military, he is facing charges in a civilian court.

Both Fallujah and Haditha are in Anbar province, until recently the most violent in Iraq.

WHEELS OF JUSTICE

Prosecutions of U.S. service members accused of misdeeds in Iraq and Afghanistan have produced uneven results:

Abu Ghraib prison abuse: Eleven soldiers were convicted in military courts and given sentences ranging from 90 days to 10 years. Two officers were disciplined by the Army but were not dismissed.

Haditha: Eight Marines were charged initially after 24 Iraqi civilians were killed after an improvised explosive device struck a U.S. convoy in November 2005. Four are waiting to face a court-martial on charges of manslaughter and wrongful killings.

Mahmoudiyah: Four soldiers were convicted and received sentences ranging from five to 100 years for the rape and slaying of Abeer Qassim al-Janabi, 14, and her family in March 2006.

Hamdania: Seven Marines and a Navy corpsman were charged with the killing of Hashim Ibrahim Awad, 52, in April 2006. Five pleaded guilty to lesser charges and are expected to testify against the others.

Muthana chemical complex: Four soldiers were sentenced to prison terms ranging from nine months to 18 years for killing three Iraqi detainees during a raid on suspected al Qaeda compound in May 2006.

Iskandariyah: Three U.S. snipers were charged with the shooting death of Nasir al-Janabi in May 2007. One was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Nanghar, Afghanistan: Charges were not pursued against a company of Marines for an incident in which 10 Afghans were killed and 30 wounded in March 2007 after a roadside bomb and small-arms attack on a U.S. convoy.

Kandahar, Afghanistan: Two Air Force pilots had charges dropped after a friendly-fire bombing incident in April 2002 in which four Canadian troops died.

Research by John Haydon from news reports

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