A Marine lieutenant accused of murdering two unarmed detained Iraqis and hanging a taunting sign over their corpses was cleared of all charges Thursday, a decision the Marine Corps said was in "the best interests" of the officer and the country.
Marine 2nd Lt. Ilario G. Pantano -- a Wall Street energy trader who rejoined the military in response to the Sept. 11 attacks -- did not deny shooting the suspected insurgents 60 times or hanging the sign that displayed a corps slogan: "No better friend, no worse enemy."
Instead, Pantano, 33, asserted that he had killed the Iraqis in self-defense after the men made threatening moves toward him during an April 2004 search of their car near Mahmudiyah, Iraq, 15 miles south of Baghdad.
Pantano's civilian attorney, Charles W. Gittins, said autopsies produced no evidence that the men had been shot in the back while on their knees, as an Arabic translator identified as "Corporal O" had testified.
Maj. Gen. Richard Huck, commander of the 2nd Marine Division, dismissed all charges after "careful consideration" of the autopsies and an investigative report, the corps said in a statement at Camp Lejeune, N.C., Pantano's home base. "The best interests of 2nd Lt. Pantano and the government have been served by this process," the statement said.
The case, one of a number in which Americans have been accused of executing suspected Iraqi insurgents, explored what many service members said was a fine line between murder and self-defense during the chaos of combat.
Veterans nationwide rallied behind Pantano, accusing the military of second-guessing a man who had risked his life for his country under difficult conditions. A website run by Pantano's mother -- defendthedefenders.org -- raised money for his defense.
Asked what he believed had turned the case in Pantano's favor, Gittins said: "You have an officer of unimpeachable integrity who said, 'These guys threatened me, and I killed them.' Ilario acted honorably in combat."
Gittins said his client was thrilled and relieved after learning of the decision. "He just wants to spend a little time with his family now and then move on."
Huck's ruling came two weeks after a Marine investigative officer had recommended in a 16-page report that the most serious charges be dropped. Lt. Col. Mark E. Winn wrote that prosecutors had not proved their charges in a case that was undermined by contradictory testimony. Pantano earlier had disciplined a sergeant who testified against him.
If Pantano "did indeed feel he was about to be attacked, he was well within the rules of engagement to shoot to eliminate that threat," Winn wrote, while adding that the lieutenant had exhibited "extremely poor judgment" and made serious tactical errors. He recommended that Pantano receive administrative punishment for "desecrating" the men's bodies "to the disgrace of the armed forces."
Huck rejected that recommendation.
According to testimony, Pantano encountered Hamaady Kareem and Tahah Ahmead Hanjil when they tried to drive away from a house where his platoon had just recovered automatic rifles, ammunition and bomb-making materials.
After the Marines had flex-cuffed the men and searched their car -- finding nothing incriminating -- witnesses said, Pantano ordered the plastic handcuffs removed and told the Iraqis to search the car themselves. Pantano told two Marines to provide security a short distance away, leaving the lieutenant alone with the suspects.
Pantano told an investigating officer that the Iraqis "pivoted their bodies toward each other simultaneously, while still speaking in muffled Arabic." According to the investigative report, Pantano "stated he believed that he was going to be attacked by both of these men, so he placed his M-16A4 on three-round burst and opened fire."
Winn added: "He said that the men kept moving for a while after he starting firing, so he continued to fire until the magazine was empty." Pantano reloaded and emptied a second magazine into the men's bodies, Winn wrote.
In his statement, Pantano said: "I had made the decision that when I was firing, I was going to send a message to these Iraqis and others that when we say, 'No better friend, no worse enemy,' we mean it."
Fellow Marines have described Pantano as an inspirational leader whose "judgment and tactical proficiency set him at the top of his peer group," Winn wrote. He noted that Pantano, on his own initiative, taught classes in Iraqi culture and history to his platoon.
"All 40 of my son's men came back home alive, and 40 sets of parents are very grateful to Ilario for that," Merry K. Pantano said in an interview last week.
The lieutenant, who lives with his wife and two children in Wilmington, N.C., will continue serving as a training officer at Camp Lejeune, base spokesman 2nd Lt. Barry Edwards said.
Gittins said Pantano would follow orders if sent back to Iraq: "He's a good Marine. If his unit is sent, I'm sure he'd go with them."