Thursday, June 15, 2006

A criminal defense attorney for a Marine under investigation in the Haditha killings says he will call a senior Democratic congressman as a trial witness, if his client is charged, to find out who told the lawmaker that U.S. troops are guilty of cold-blooded murder.

Attorney Neal A. Puckett told The Washington Times that Gen. Michael Hagee, the Marine commandant, briefed Rep. John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat, on the Nov. 19 killings of 24 Iraqis in the town north of Baghdad. Mr. Murtha later told reporters that the Marines were guilty of killing the civilians in “cold blood.” Mr. Murtha said he based his statement on Marine commanders, whom he did not identify.

Mr. Puckett said such public comments from a congressman via senior Marines amount to “unlawful command influence.” He said potential Marine jurors could be biased by the knowledge that their commandant, the Corps’ top officer, thinks the Haditha Marines are guilty.

“Congressman Murtha will be one of the first witnesses I call to the witness stand,” Mr. Puckett said yesterday.

Mr. Puckett represents Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich, an eight-year Marine who was a key participant in the Haditha operations that resulted in the 24 civilian deaths.

The attorney said Sgt. Wuterich, 26, the married father of two daughters, led the squad of Kilo Company that mounted the four major combat actions on Nov. 19 that resulted in 23 deaths at a traffic stop and in three houses. The 24th Iraqi was killed while fleeing a home by a rooftop-stationed Marine or Marines, Mr. Puckett said.

The attorney said his client strongly rejects accusations in the press from Haditha residents that Marines lined up some of the civilians and executed them. Mr. Puckett said Sgt. Wuterich maintains that such an incident never occurred, and that Marines followed proper procedures in clearing the three houses.

“What’s being reported out there, it seems an awful lot of it is inaccurate,” Mr. Puckett said. He said his client, stationed at Camp Pendleton, Calif., has been promoted to platoon leader and is not under confinement.

“How would you feel to be falsely accused of killing innocent people,” the attorney said. “He was angered and hurt by it because he doesn’t understand how the public could think he and his Marines could do such a thing.”

Col. Dave Lapan, a spokesman at Marine Corps headquarters at the Pentagon, said Mr. Murtha was one of eight senior House members and senators briefed by Gen. Hagee in May on the investigation. “I don’t know what he told them,” Col. Lapan said.

A spokesman for Mr. Murtha did not return a message yesterday seeking comment.

The Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) is expected to finish its probe by August, at which time Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, who commands the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force at Pendleton, will decide whether to bring charges that could include murder.

“If the NCIS has done a good job in this investigation, then Marine commanders will not feel compelled to charge these guys with homicide,” Mr. Puckett said.

“But since Congressman Murtha has already judged these guys in public and folks have alleged a Marine Corp cover-up, I’m afraid that the Marine Corps will feel compelled to put these guys on trial to prove the Marine Corps hasn’t done anything wrong in terms of a cover-up.”

On Nov. 19, Haditha remained one of the most dangerous and rebellious towns in Anbar province, a haven for both Sunni Muslim insurgents loyal to ousted dictator Saddam Hussein and foreign jihadists. The U.S. command in Baghdad had sent Marines on a “persistent presence” mission to pacify the area for Dec. 15 parliamentary elections. Lima Company, an Ohio Reserve unit that Kilo Marines replaced, suffered high fatality rates while patrolling Haditha.

That Saturday, Marine units were under attack at various points in Haditha when an improvised explosive device (IED) took out one of the vehicles in Sgt. Wuterich’s patrol. The blast killed Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas, a popular member of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Regiment.

Mr. Puckett gave this version of events based on his discussions with Sgt. Wuterich:

After the blast, the Marines set up a defensive perimeter, and called in a quick-reaction force to find out who had placed and remotely detonated the IED.

A car appeared with five Iraqi men inside. Marines, in Arabic, ordered them to halt. The five exited the car. Rather than heed the orders, the men started to run. Sgt. Wuterich and other Marines opened fire, killing the Iraqis. Marines at the time considered Iraqis running after an attack and disobeying orders as confirmation of hostile intent, Mr. Puckett said. He said that sometime after Jan. 1, commanders no longer permitted such a response.

Next, a shot was fired from a home near the perimeter. Someone in the squad recommended clearing the homes along that block. Sgt. Wuterich agreed and gained permission from a second lieutenant platoon leader, who did not take part in the raids.

The Marines then fired grenades to “prep” the first house and went in. All rooms were empty, except one, from where Marines heard “rustling.” A Marine, not Sgt. Wuterich, tossed in a grenade and then opened fire, killing all in the room.

The Marines then entered a second house, encountered Iraqis and killed them.

“They’re chasing the insurgents who were shooting at them,” Mr. Puckett said.

Hours later, they decided to raid a third house based on suspicious behavior. The first Marine to enter spotted four men inside, one holding an AK-47. The Marine’s M-16 jammed. He pulled out a 9mm pistol and killed all four.

Sgt. Wuterich, before counting all the bodies, radioed the battalion command and reported that 12 to 15 Iraqis were killed by Marines after the IED attack. He said there was “collateral damage,” military speak for civilian deaths.

“My client did nothing contrary to his training on that day,” Mr. Puckett said. “Some [of those killed] were innocent. Others, you will never know whether they were innocent civilians or not.”

The next day, the 2nd Marine Division released a statement that 15 Iraqis were killed by an IED and firefight. The statement was inaccurate. An Army general is investigating whether it was part of a broad cover-up.

Copyright © 2023 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide