On a quiet morning in 2005, Marines from Camp Pendleton's 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment - nicknamed the "Thundering Third" - participated in a supply convoy through Haditha, which was then an insurgent stronghold. A bomb erupted under one vehicle, killing Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas, 20, 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.
At the court-martial proceedings, much of the debate centered on Marines' rules of engagement. A former officer who gave Wuterich the order to "clear" the area testified that he believed the nearby houses could be deemed "hostile" and that he expected the squad to "kill or capture the enemy I thought was in that building."
The apparent end to the Haditha cases was hailed by many Marines, who noted that many of the people commenting on the case have never been in combat.
In an interview from his home in Pennsylvania, the father of then-Lance Cpl. Justin L. Sharratt, one of the Marines whose charges were dropped, called the entire case "political persecution." "It is a tragedy that occurred there," Darryl Sharratt said. "But those Marines were using their rules of engagement."
"The people making these decisions have been there," Siegel said. "And they know how it changes you." Other experts, however, expressed amazement at what they described as a flawed prosecution. For instance, the military issued $2,500 condolence payments to victims' relatives - and then said those payments had tainted witnesses' accounts. Military prosecutors also granted immunity to Marines in exchange for their testimony, but still failed to win convictions.
"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," said David Glazier, a former Navy surface warfare officer who teaches international and national security law at Loyola Law School. The failure of the Haditha prosecution will reverberate for years in Iraq, Samer Muscati, Human Rights Watch's Iraq researcher, said in an interview from Baghdad. With the withdrawal of American troops, U.S. officials are trying to implement democratic reform and root out widespread human rights abuses among Iraqi security forces. That could prove difficult, Muscati said, if Americans can't demonstrate that they practice what they preach. "We're at a crossroads right now in Iraq," he said. "The impact of this is huge."
-Tony Perry,Carol J William and Scott Gold, LAT times