But only weeks after the start of the long-awaited trial at Camp Pendelton, California, they offered Wuterich a deal that stopped the proceedings and meant no jail time for the squad leader who ordered his men to “shoot first, ask questions later,” resulting in one of the Iraq War’s worst attacks on civilians by U.S. troops.
The 31-year-old Marine, who was originally accused of unpremeditated murder, pleaded guilty Monday to negligent dereliction of duty for leading the squad that killed 24 unarmed Iraqi civilians during raids after a roadside bomb exploded, killing a fellow Marine and wounding two others.
Wuterich, who was indicted in 19 of the 24 deaths, walked away with no jail time Tuesday after defending his squad’s storming of the homes of Haditha as a necessary act “to keep the rest of my Marines alive.”
Legal experts said the case was fraught with errors made by investigators and the prosecution that let it drag on for years. The prosecution was also hampered by squad mates who acknowledged they had lied to investigators initially and later testified in exchange for having their cases dropped, bringing into question their credibility.
It was a stunning outcome for the last defendant in the case once compared with the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. The seven other Marines initially charged were exonerated or had their cases dropped.
Local Sunni leaders in Anbar province blasted the plea deal and demanded that Baghdad authorities pressure their U.S. backers not to let American soldiers get away with murder.
Hamid al-Mutlaq, a Sunni lawmaker from Anbar, echoed these remarks.
“They were supposed to protect the Iraqi people, not kill them,” he said.
Muhammad Muhsin, a 26-year-old owner of a grocery store in Haditha, said the plea deal was shameful and a disgrace.
“This is a scandal and a shame for American justice,” Muhsin said. “The Iraqi government bears responsibility for letting those criminals get away with their heinous crime. We demand the Iraqi government act quickly to ensure the rights of the victims and to make sure that the murderers get what they deserve.”
Most Iraqi officials The Associated Press contacted on Tuesday for comment did not respond or declined to comment.
The muted reaction of the officials in the Shiite-dominated government highlights the sectarian resentments that have deepened since the last U.S. forces withdrew late last year. Some fear a return to the type of sectarian warfare that ravaged Iraq during the height of the war.
• Surk reported from Baghdad. Associated Press writers Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad and Hadi Mizban in Haditha contributed to this report.
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