Iraqis are reacting with outrage — and appropriately so — that the ringleader of the 2005 Haditha massacre that left 24 of their countrymen dead received no jail time and merely a reduction in rank to private as part of a plea deal in which he pleaded guilty to a single count of dereliction of duty.
“This is not new, and it’s not new for the American courts that already did little about Abu Ghraib and other crimes in Iraq,” said Khalid Salman, 45, whose cousin was killed by the Marines in the November 2005 massacre, which also took the lives of a 76-year-old wheelchair-bound man and women and children.
Although the reduced charge carried a maximum sentence of three months in jail, which the military judge said he would have imposed, The Associated Press reported that as part of the plea deal, prosecutors had agreed that Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich would receive no jail time. He had faced up to 152 years in prison if convicted on the charges of manslaughter and assault on which he stood accused.
“That soldier would be sent to prison for more than three months if he had thrown trash on the streets in America,” Salman said, adding: “We won’t be silent. We will resume the case through all international courts, and we will appeal the American resolution. Injustice has won this round, but there are many more rounds left.”
The dark shadows cast by the Haditha massacre, the abuse of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison and the killing of civilians by contractors for Blackwater helped turn Iraqi public opinion against the American troop presence. An agreement to keep American troops in-country past 2011 collapsed when Iraqi officials would not agree to extend their immunity from Iraqi prosecution.
The outcome of the longest-running criminal prosecution to emerge from the Iraq War, a case described as that war’s version of the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam, was only slightly surprising.
The deck had been stacked in favor of the Marines because of their argument that the rules of engagement regarding when civilians could be fired upon was unclear. While this may have been true to an extent, that does not explain why a 76-year-old wheelchair-bound man and unarmed women and children were mowed down in a horrific incident that took 24 lives.
My surprise concerns the fact that Wuterich, the last Marine to be tried and who once faced possibly 152 years in prison, might have had to do any time at all. He originally had entered a not-guilty pleas to all charges.
Reaction to the plea agreement broke along predictable lines: Supporters of the Marines cheered it while Iraqis and human rights activists said it yet again proved that American soldiers were not accountable. Charges had previously been dropped against six others involved in the massacre. A seventh Marine was acquitted.
Bing West, a combat Marine in Vietnam and former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, called the plea agreement “the right conclusion to a tragedy,” while Gary Solis, a former Marine prosecutor who teaches the law of armed conflict at Georgetown University, said Haditha could become a case study in how not to prosecute suspected war crimes.
My own view is that the deal further reinforces a belief in the international community that the U.S. military has not held its troops accountable nor met the standards of conduct it has attempted to impose far from home.
One Marine, who was granted immunity in exchange for his testimony, told of how he had urinated on a dead civilian’s head, which s reminiscent of a video made public earlier this month in which four Marines are seen urinating on bloodstained corpses of Afghan militants.
“This [plea agreement] has contributed significantly to the cynicism of people in the region about America’s rhetoric — about America standing for principles,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. “When push comes to shove, when it comes to looking at the misconduct of [U.S.] . . . soldiers, there is no accountability.”
On a quiet morning in November 2005, Marines from Camp Pendleton’s 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment — nicknamed the “Thundering Third”– were running a supply convoy through Haditha, which was then an insurgent stronghold. A bomb erupted under one vehicle, killing Lance Corporal Miguel Terrazas and injuring two others.
The surviving Marines turned their attention to a nearby residential area that some believed was the source of additional small-arms fire. While preparing their assault, five men pulled up in a white car. Wuterich shot them to death.
According to one Marine’s testimony, Wuterich told his comrades that they should tell investigators the men had been running away from the bomb; in fact, the Marine testified, the men were “just standing around,” some with their hands raised and fingers interlocked over their heads.
Wuterich and the others then attacked two homes with M-16s and fragmentation grenades. The situation degenerated into chaos; the homes filled with smoke and debris, and one Marine acknowledged shooting at “silhouettes.” Others said their only indication that the homes were “hostile” was that their fellow Marines were shooting.
A short time later, the Marine Corps released an official version of events: 15 Iraqis had been killed in the bombing, and the others had been killed in an ensuing firefight — none of which was true.
Wuterich said during a brief hearing on the plea agreement that he regretted telling his men to “shoot first, ask questions later.”