SAN DIEGO – Eight Marines were charged Thursday in the killings of 24 Iraqi civilians last year during a bloody, door-to-door sweep in the town of Haditha that came after one of their comrades was killed by a roadside bomb.
In the biggest U.S. criminal case involving civilian deaths to come out of the Iraq war, four of the Marines — all enlisted men — were charged with unpremeditated murder.
The other four were officers who were not there during the killings but were accused of failures in investigating and reporting the deaths.
The most serious charges were brought against Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, a 26-year-old squad leader accused of murdering 12 civilians and ordering the murders of six more inside a house cleared by his squad. He was accused of telling his men to "shoot first and ask questions later," according to court papers released by his attorney.
The highest-ranking defendant was Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani, 42, of Rangely, Colo. He was accused of failing to obey an order or regulation, encompassing dereliction of duty.
At a news conference to announce the charges, military officials would not say what they believe prompted the killings on Nov. 19, 2005. But investigators have raised the possibility that the men went on a rampage in a fury over the roadside bombing that killed Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas of El Paso, Texas, and wounded two other Marines.
Defense attorneys have disputed that, saying their clients were doing as they had been taught: responding to a perceived threat with legitimate force.
"There's no question that innocent people died that day, but Staff Sergeant Wuterich believes, and I believe, they did everything they were trained to do," said Wuterich's lawyer, Neal Puckett.
Terrazas' father denounced the charges, saying his son was murdered by insurgents. "What they are doing to our troops ... it's just wrong," Martin Terrazas said in Texas. "I feel for their families. They are in my prayers."
Wuterich and two comrades charged with murder could get life in prison. The military is not seeking the death penalty. The other men face shorter prison sentences.
The Marine Corps initially reported that 15 Iraqis died in a roadside bomb blast and that Marines killed eight insurgents in an ensuing firefight. That account was widely discredited, and later reports put the number of dead Iraqis at 24.
A criminal probe was launched after Time magazine reported in March, citing survivor accounts and human rights groups, that innocent people were killed.
Lt. Gen. James Mattis, commanding general of the Marine Corps Central Command, said Thursday that the Corps' initial news release, which stated that the civilians in Haditha had been killed by an improvised explosive device, was incorrect.
"We now know with certainty that the press release was incorrect, and that none of the civilians were killed by the IED explosion," Mattis said in another release.
As word spread that charges were imminent, some Iraqis said Thursday that American troops should face justice in Iraq.
"They committed a horrible crime against innocents," Naji al-Ani, a 36-year-old laborer, said by telephone from Haditha.
Other residents of Haditha agreed.
"Are they terrorists or are they fighting terrorism?" said Jamal al-Obaidi, a 40-year-old teacher. "The trial is not fair because it is taking place in America. Executing them is the minimum penalty."
Besides Wuterich, Sgt. Sanick P. Dela Cruz, 24, of Chicago, was accused of the unpremeditated murders of five people and making a false statement. Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt, 22, of Cannonsburg, Pa., was charged with the unpremeditated murder of three Iraqis. Lance Cpl. Stephen Tatum, 25, of Edmond, Okla., was accused of the unpremeditated murders of two Iraqis, negligent homicide of four Iraqis and assault.
The other officers charged were 1st Lt. Andrew Grayson, 25, Capt. Lucas McConnell, 31, of Napa, Calif., and Capt. Randy Stone, 34, a military attorney.
The men are not being locked up for now because they are unlikely to flee and are not a danger to themselves or others, said Col. Stewart Navarre, a Corps spokesman.
In Meriden, Conn., Frank Wuterich's father, Dave, said his son was out Christmas shopping. The father said family members believe his son's version of events.
"He says they followed the rules of engagement," Dave Wuterich said. "They were taking small arms fire. They did what they had to do."