A Marine squadron leader convicted in the deaths of 24 Iraqi civilians in 2005 was reduced in rank to private today after expressing regret for the killings.
“Words cannot express my sorrow for the loss of your loved ones,” Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich said at his sentencing, addressing family members of the Iraqis killed in the town of Haditha.
“I know there is nothing I can say to ease your pain,” he continued.
“I wish to assure you that on that day, it was never my intention to harm you or your families. I know that you are the real victims of Nov. 19, 2005.”
Wuterich, 31, was sentenced to a reduction in rank a day after pleading guilty to negligent dereliction of duty for his role in the Haditha deaths.
He agreed to the plea in the middle of a court-martial at Camp Pendleton.
A military judge, Lt. Col. David Jones, ordered Wuterich to serve 90 days in jail, but that was set aside under the terms of the plea agreement.
Military prosecutor Lt. Col. Sean Sullivan asked for the maximum punishment for Wuterich — 90 days in custody plus a reduction in rank and forfeiture of pay.
The sentencing ended the longest-running criminal case against U.S. troops stemming from the Iraq War. The civilian deaths in Haditha occurred after a roadside bomb killed a member of Wuterich’s squad.
The seven other Marines charged in connection with the civilian deaths were cleared of any criminal wrongdoing. Charges of manslaughter and assault against Wuterich were dropped as a result of his plea agreement.
Tuesday in court, Wuterich said he “responded to what I perceived as a threat and my intention was to eliminate that threat in order to keep the rest of my Marines alive. So, when I told my team to shoot first and ask questions later, the intent wasn’t that they would shoot civilians, it was that they would not hesitate in the face of the enemy.”
Even though he pleaded guilty, Wuterich said he didn’t believe anyone in his squad behaved dishonorably or contrary to the highest ideals of the Marine Corps. He accepted responsibility for his actions and how they led to the deaths, but said he never fired his weapon at any women and children that day.
Wuterich’s plea was anticipated last week, but his court-martial resumed when negotiations apparently fell through.
Several prosecution witnesses gave testimony backing Wuterich’s position that he believed his squad was under attack when the killings occurred.
Wuterich, a single father of three girls, said he believed five Iraqi men who were killed when they pulled up in a car represented a threat after the roadside bombing. Nineteen other civilians — including seven children, one of them a toddler, plus three women and a 76-year-old man confined to a wheelchair — were killed in three houses.
The case has hindered U.S. policy in the Middle East. It is believed to have been a reason for the refusal of Iraq’s government to grant U.S. forces immunity from prosecution — a decision that hastened the end of the U.S. military presence in Iraq.
Experts quoted by the Los Angeles Times said they feared Monday’s plea deal would reinforce a belief in the international community that the U.S. military does not hold its troops accountable.
“From the perspective that 24 civilians, including women and children, were killed … and all that happens is one noncommissioned (officer) pleads guilty to what appears to be a very inconsequential offense, that makes us look bad,” David Glazier, a former Navy surface warfare officer who teaches international and national security law at Loyola Law School, said.
Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch, told The Times that the case had “contributed significantly to the cynicism of people in the region about America’s rhetoric — about America standing for principles.”
“When push comes to shove, when it comes to looking at the misconduct of (U.S.) … soldiers, there is no accountability,” she said.