- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 2, 2006

A Marine sergeant under investigation in the Haditha, Iraq, killings filed a lawsuit yesterday against Rep. John P. Murtha, accusing the congressman of libeling him when he accused Marines of coldblooded murder.

Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich led the squad that killed as many as 24 civilians in the town west of Baghdad last year. In filing the suit, he is taking on a prominent Democrat who is leading his party’s anti-Iraq war campaign aimed at recapturing control of the House of Representatives.

Sgt. Wuterich, in a suit filed in U.S. District Court here by his two civilian attorneys, said Mr. Murtha of Pennsylvania “repeatedly, for reasons best known to him, publicly and falsely accused the involved Marines, including the plaintiff Frank Wuterich, of cold-blooded murder and war crimes.”

The lawsuit says Sgt. Wuterich’s men followed the Corps’ rules of engagement on Nov. 19, when they swept two houses, killing civilians inside, after an improvised explosive device killed a fellow Marine and someone fired on their convoy.

Mr. Murtha yesterday issued a statement repeating his criticism of the war, saying, “It’s well beyond the time to redeploy from Iraq.”

He added, “I don’t blame the staff sergeant for lashing out. When I spoke up about Haditha, my intention was to draw attention to the horrendous pressure put on our troops in Iraq and to the cover-up of the incident.”

The Naval Criminal Investigative Service has been conducting a criminal investigation since last winter, after a Time magazine article chronicled the killings. The probe is nearly complete.

The next step is for the commanding general at Camp Pendleton, Calif., where Sgt. Wuterich’s unit is based, to decide whether to bring criminal charges. Some defense attorneys said they expect murder counts to be filed against one or more Marines.

Mr. Murtha, senior Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense, has announced plans to seek the majority leader’s post if his party takes control of the House in the November elections.

He repeatedly has invoked the Haditha killings as an example of what he says is a hopeless mission in Iraq. After briefings from what he said were the Marine Corps’ highest command levels, he told reporters in May the Marines killed the Haditha civilians “in cold blood.” He has also repeatedly accused the military, and the Marine Corps, specifically, of a cover-up of the incident until the Time report.

But a defense official said yesterday a completed report into how the chain of command handled the case found no evidence of a deliberate cover-up.

A number of lawmakers received the same private briefings on the Haditha investigation, but only Mr. Murtha made such statements afterward about the Marines being guilty of coldblooded murder.

The lawsuit states Sgt. Wuterich “may, in fact, end up facing prosecution in part, or in whole, because of the negative and false portrait of his conduct that Mr. Murtha has created.”

The sergeant is represented by civilian attorneys Neal Puckett, a former Marine, and Mark Zaid. Mr. Puckett told The Washington Times this spring that, if his client is charged, he plans to call Mr. Murtha as a witness to find out the identify of the commanders who told the congressman the Marines committed coldblooded murder.

The lawsuit includes a chronology of how the killings happened at a time when Marines were under orders to subdue the insurgency Iraq’s al Anbar province in time for the December national elections.

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