Defense attorney Neal Puckette, left, walks into court with Marine Staff… (Sandy Huffaker/ AFPGetty…)
Reporting from Camp Pendleton — U.S. combat involvement in Iraq is over, but the controversial events of one of the bloodiest mornings involving U.S. troops in that eight-year war are now the focus of a high-profile court-martial here.
The day was Nov. 19, 2005, when Marines fatally shot 24 Iraqis in the village of Haditha in a failed search for insurgents who had just detonated a roadside bomb that killed one Marine and severely injured two others.
An eight-man jury — made up entirely of combat veterans — is asked to decide whether a squad leader acted out of vengeance or was merely following orders and standard procedure when he led his Marines into nearby homes where, without asking questions, they began firing their M-16s and hurling grenades.
Among Iraqis killed were three women, seven children and a 76-year-old man in a wheelchair.
Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, 31, the squad leader, is charged with manslaughter, assault and dereliction of duty. The charges carry a penalty of 152 years in prison.
The prosecution says Wuterich, agonized by the death of a fellow Marine, lost control of himself and led his squad. The defense says Wuterich responded the way he was trained to do when Marines are under fire from hidden gunmen.
Much of the trial will center on questions about the "rules of engagement" — specifically whether Marines need to make individual determinations that attackers have "hostile intent" before killing them — and on the responsibility of a squad leader for the actions of young Marines under his command.
The case also brings up a dilemma that remains relevant to U.S. forces in Afghanistan: What code of conduct can be expected of Marines or soldiers when they are fighting an enemy that hides behind women and children?
Maj. Nicholas Gannon, the lead prosecutor, told jurors Monday that Wuterich made "a series of fatal assumptions and lost control of himself" — first in killing five young men outside their car and then in giving his Marines a "shoot-to-kill" order when they swept through the houses.
Gannon said that even after it was known that the dead in the houses included women and children, Wuterich insisted to a military investigator that his Marines "did their job, they did it well."
"The evidence will show that none of the victims were a threat," Gannon said.
To a military investigator, Wuterich had said, "I told [his Marines] to treat the house as a hostile environment. I told them 'shoot first, ask questions later.' "
Testimony will show that Wuterich stood at the foot of a bed where a woman and child were cowering in fear and shot them in the head, Gannon said.
But lead defense attorney Haytham Faraj said that Wuterich had followed his orders and the rules of engagement after being told by a lieutenant to "clear" houses near the explosion that ripped apart the Humvee and killed Cpl. Miguel Terrazas.
The Marines, Faraj said, were under fire from the houses and needed to respond. The deaths, he said, were "the unfortunate result of a squad leader doing the best he could that day."
Repeatedly, Faraj asked the jurors — all veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan — to use their knowledge of combat and of "clearing" occupied houses to determine if Wuterich acted properly and whether other Marines, given immunity to testify against him, are being truthful.
"You have a bunch of scared Marines," he said.
When Wuterich and other Marines from Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, arrived in Haditha in the fall of 2005, they were warned by intelligence officers that Haditha would be "another Fallouja," the site of the bloodiest urban fighting involving Marines since Vietnam.
The battalion that the unit replaced had two dozen Marines killed in combat. Insurgents had beheaded local residents who had been friendly to the Marines.
The Marines were warned that fighters from Syria were flooding into Haditha to mount "complex attacks" with snipers and buried roadside bombs and that the fighters would hide behind noncombatants.
And so when a roadside bomb exploded beneath a Marine convoy, Marines were convinced that a complex attack was underway, Faraj said. Attacks were underway in other parts of Haditha as well.
The defense will question the competency of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and suggest that Marine brass panicked and began looking for scapegoats when Time magazine splashed the story of the killings as "Massacre in Haditha."
A military investigator concluded that Wuterich and his Marines had done nothing wrong, that the deaths of noncombatants were tragic but not proof of an illegal act.
When there are multiple reports of being under fire from a location, it is unreasonable to expect each Marine to stop to decide whether each individual in that location presents a "hostile act," the investigator concluded.