CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. — A former squad member under a Marine implicated in the deaths of 19 Iraqis testified Tuesday that after a roadside bombing, the group raced to nearby homes, firing rounds and tossing grenades for 45 minutes, even though he said the Marines did not take gunfire, come across a single insurgent or find a weapon.
Still, former Cpl. Steven Tatum told the jury at the Camp Pendleton trial of Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich that he felt the squad did nothing wrong that day in the town of Haditha in 2005, when Marines killed 24 Iraqis, including unarmed women and children.
Staff Sgt. Wuterich, who led the squad that day, faces nine counts of manslaughter. Military prosecutors have implicated the Camp Pendleton Marine from Meriden, Conn., in 19 of the 24 Iraqi deaths. He is the last defendant in one of the biggest criminal cases against U.S. troops from the war.
The squad was returning from a supply run at a combat outpost in the early morning when one of the four humvees in their convoy hit a roadside bomb, killing Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas and wounding two others.
When Mr. Tatum caught up to Staff Sgt. Wuterich, the sergeant told him to “treat the house as hostile,” Mr. Tatum testified. Mr. Tatum understood that to mean there were armed individuals inside and he did not need to identify his target to attack.
The Marines tossed grenades in rooms and fired off rounds. One man was killed near the kitchen. Others were killed in a back room, where Mr. Tatum fired alongside Staff Sgt. Wuterich but said he was unable to see what he was shooting at because of the darkness and flying debris after a grenade exploded.
The Marines left when someone yelled that they had seen a person running out of the home. They ran to a neighboring house, tossing grenades in rooms and shooting off rounds. Mr. Tatum saw the body of an Iraqi man near the kitchen when he went in after his fellow Marines.
While checking an empty room, Mr. Tatum said he heard people in a nearby room moving, then Staff Sgt. Wuterich firing his M16 rifle. He rushed to help him, shooting at what he said were silhouettes in the dark, some big, some small.
He returned later when the house had been determined to be safe and learned they had killed an unarmed woman and children in the room.
The defense says Staff Sgt. Wuterich thought insurgents were in the homes and that’s why he ordered his Marines to shoot first and ask questions later.
The debate is whether Staff Sgt. Wuterich reacted appropriately as a Marine squad leader in protecting his troops in the midst of a chaotic war or went on a vengeful rampage, disregarding combat rules, and leading his men to shoot and blast indiscriminately at Iraqi civilians.
Staff Sgt. Wuterich, who has been working a desk job at Camp Pendleton awaiting the long-delayed trial, is the last of eight Marines initially charged. Six have had their charges dismissed or discharged. One was acquitted.