WASHINGTON – A Marine Corps sergeant under investigation in connection with the deaths of 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha is accusing Rep. John P. Murtha of defaming him in public comments about the case.
Lawyers for Frank D. Wuterich, 26, argue in a suit filed Wednesday in federal court that Murtha falsely accused Wuterich "of cold-blooded murder and war crimes" — although they acknowledged during a news conference that Murtha named Wuterich's squad, but not Wuterich personally, when speaking with reporters.
Murtha, D-Pa., issued a statement Wednesday saying he doesn't blame Wuterich for "lashing out."
"When I spoke up about Haditha, my intention was to draw attention to the horrendous pressure put on our troops in Iraq and to the cover-up of the incident," said Murtha, a 16-term congressman who was campaigning for re-election Wednesday in his hometown of Johnstown, Pa.
The suit maintains that Pentagon officials "who have briefed or leaked information to Mr. Murtha deliberately provided him with inaccurate and false information" and that the congressman subsequently "has made repeated statements .... that are defamatory" to Wuterich and his fellow Marines.
The suit accuses Murtha of spreading "false and malicious lies" about Wuterich and his squad that were "intended to serve his own private purpose and interests" and that Murtha's comments "have been reproduced by countless third parties throughout the world."
It says many of Murtha's remarks were made outside his "scope of employment as a congressman." Murtha, a former Marine and decorated Vietnam War veteran, has been a leading proponent of withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq.
The claim for libel and invasion of privacy seeks damages to be determined, but not less than $75,000.
Mark Zaid, an attorney for Wuterich said during a news conference that the suit was not about money or politics.
"This case ... is about truth, honor and accountability and Congressman Murtha, who we believe has acted out of his scope as a congressman," Zaid said.
The suit details Wuterich's account of what happened on Nov. 19, 2005, in Haditha, a story he has told through his lawyers previously.
Wuterich maintains several civilians were killed when his squad pursued insurgents firing at them from inside a house after a roadside bombing that killed one Marine. He describes a house-to-house hunt that went wrong in the midst of a confusing battlefield, but has denied through his attorneys any vengeful massacre.
Wuterich and other Marines from his 3rd battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, are under investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigation Service. A parallel investigation is looking at whether officers at higher levels in the chain of command covered up the facts.
No one has been charged in the case.
A Pentagon official told The Associated Press Wednesday that evidence collected on the deaths of 24 Iraqis in Haditha supports accusations that U.S. Marines deliberately shot the civilians, including unarmed women and children.
The court case was first reported late Tuesday on The Washington Post's Internet site.