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Snipers' killing rules unclear, officer says

A platoon leader says at an assault hearing that he tried and failed to get clarification.

July 02, 2008|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

CAMP PENDLETON — Marine snipers were never given clear rules about when they could kill a suspected insurgent at long range, a platoon commander testified today at a hearing for a sniper charged with manslaughter and assault in the killing of two Syrians and the wounding of two others.

Lt. Dominic Corabi said that as he and his Marines deployed to Iraq, he tried and failed to get clarification from senior officers about what constitutes "positive identification" and "hostile intent" -- terms in the official rules of engagement that dictate when Marines can use deadly force.

Enlisted Marines, Corabi said, were worried that their combat decisions could be second-guessed and that, like the Marines involved in the Haditha killings of 2005, they could find themselves facing criminal charges.

"Their main message was, 'I don't want to ruin my career doing something I think is right and the Marine Corps doesn't,' " Corabi said.

His testimony came at the preliminary hearing for Sgt. Johnny Winnick, accused of breaking Marine rules by opening fire on a group of men he thought was planting a roadside bomb near Lake Tharthar. No evidence of a bomb was discovered.

The hearing officer will recommend to the commanding general whether the case should go to court martial, be dropped or be handled through an administrative process.

Winnick, 24, a sniper team leader, was on his fourth tour in Iraq when the incident occurred June 17, 2007. Later, Marines changed the rules, requiring even a sniper team leader to get authority from an officer before pulling the trigger, except in cases of self-defense.

Corabi said the company commander had warned snipers that "the Marine Corps eats its young."

Winnick was the leader of a five-man team assigned to watch an area near a mosque that was thought to be a spot where insurgents might bury a roadside bomb.

When four men in a truck and trailer stopped at the spot in the predawn hours and began making suspicious movements near the tailgate, Winnick and the others opened fire.

After the initial volley, Winnick ordered his Marines to charge toward the downed men, firing their weapons. At the time he issued his orders, the team's communication gear had broken down and Winnick was unable to get in touch with officers who were at a base a little more than half a mile away.

Sgt. Alexander Wazenkewitz, who was with Winnick, said one of the wounded men acted suspiciously even after being shot.

"He had like this evil smirk on his face," Wazenkewitz testified. "He was basically taunting us."

Within hours, officers had determined that Winnick had made a mistake, that the men in the truck were not planting a bomb. Winnick was relieved of duty, and Corabi said he was ordered to give him a negative evaluation but refused.

Although Winnick was brought up on charges, reprimands were placed in the other Marines' personnel files. During the battle for Fallouja in 2004, Winnick was given a meritorious promotion for killing an insurgent planting a roadside bomb.

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tony.perry@latimes.com

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