SAN DIEGO – A congressman said Wednesday that about six Marines would be charged in the killing of 24 civilians, many of them women and children, last year in the Iraqi town of Haditha.
Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colorado, did not know what the charges were but said they were serious. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, said the military would charge them in weeks, not days, but declined to be more specific about the timing.
The congressmen spoke after Lt. Gen. Richard Natonski gave a one-hour, closed-door briefing to the House Armed Services Committee on the military's investigations and the next steps.
"I think all of us in there were struck by the incident, the number of civilians involved, and the extent of the tragedy," said Udall. "There are some questions that still have to be answered, but it appeared the rules of engagement hadn't been followed."
The congressmen were asked not to speak publicly about the military's findings, and Natonski declined to give details. The Marine Corps confirmed Tuesday that prosecutors are finalizing charges.
"I'm just updating Congress," Natonski said. Asked about any criminal charges, he said, "We're looking at it soon."
A squad from Camp Pendleton-based Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment has been under investigation for the Nov. 19, 2005, killings. According to defense attorneys, the squad was on a routine mission when a roadside bomb ripped into a Humvee, killing one Marine and injuring two others.
In the aftermath of that explosion, 24 Iraqis also died. Defense lawyers have said their clients were following rules of engagement when they returned fire from houses nearby and shot several men in a taxi.
Udall said Natonski described how the killings appeared to occur over a "few hours." A while after the initial explosion, people in a nearby house were killed.
The Marines and several lawmakers declined to name the troops expected to be charged. The New York Times identified five, citing an unnamed Marine official and a lawyer involved in the case. According to the newspaper, they included Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich of Meriden, Conn., Lance Cpl. Stephen Tatum of Edmond, Okla., and Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt of Carbondale, Pa.
Lawyers for two of the men and the mother of another said they had not been notified whether and when charges would be filed.
"Our position remains that the collateral deaths of civilians was a tragedy, but all of them were legally justified actions in a time of war," said Wuterich's lawyer Mark Zaid.
Tatum's attorney, Jack Zimmerman, said his client believes he did nothing wrong.
Theresa Sharratt — who said her son has told her he followed rules of engagement — is "just waiting on pins and needles."
Justin Sharratt is working at a gymnasium at Camp Pendleton during the investigation.
"Honestly, I just hope they wait until after Christmas to do anything," his mother said. "He was in Iraq the last two holidays, and I just wanted him home this year."
Martin Terrazas — whose son, Marine Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas of El Paso, Texas, died in the roadside bomb that preceded the killings — said he was surprised to hear reports that some of his son's fellow Marines may face criminal charges.
"It's upsetting, it's terrible," Terrazas said. "They're making some kind of mistake."
Said Rep. Ike Skelton, a Missouri Democrat who attended the briefing: "Clearly, this was a tragedy. Now it is up to the legal process to determine if it was criminal. What happened at Haditha was horrific, but it does not reflect the actions of the vast majority of our brave military men and women who serve with honor."