The US Marine who took his men on a blazing, shooting rampage inside homes in the Iraqi town of Haditha in 2005, killing 24 Iraqi civilians and sparking international outrage, yesterday pleaded guilty only to dereliction of duty closing down a court martial where he had been facing far more serious charges of manslaughter.
The deal, which caught observers by surprise, means that Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich will now face a maximum of three months of confinement. He will also be demoted one military rank and will lose a portion of his pay.
It also closes down the court martial at Camp Pendleton in California and spelt the end of what had been the longest legal proceeding ever seen against members of the US military. All seven other soldiers involved in the case had already either been acquitted before yesterday or had agreed to testify against Wuterich at his court martial.
The Haditha tragedy arguably did as much to damage the reputation of the US military in Iraqi as did revelations of prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib that had come out shortly before. Memories of what happened in the town still stir fury among many Iraqis and it was one of the main reasons that the government there refused to grant immunity to American soldiers inside Iraq which in turn spurred the final withdrawal of all US troops in December.
The horror of Haditha began after the bombing of a marine convoy that took the life of one of Wuterich's own friends and wounded two others. Wuterich acknowledged in his plea hearing last night that after taking the seven men towards nearby house he ordered them to shoot first and ask questions later. Among the civilians killed were women, children and a man in a wheelchair.
Wuterich voiced regret that he had given the order effectively to shoot indiscriminately. "Honestly, I probably should have said nothing," he told the judge presiding over the court martial, Lt-Col David Jones. "I think we all understood what we were doing so I probably just should have said nothing." He then added: "I shouldn't have done that and it resulted in tragic events."
Prosecutors had told the jury that Wuterich had lost control after seeing the shattered body of his friend after the bomb blast. Speaking for the prosecution some of the other men who took part confirmed that at no time had they come under fire. Even with no return fire they continued their assault on the homes for a shocking 45 minutes.
But the prosecution case suffered an important setback when the former platoon commander of Wuterich testified that after the bombing of the convoy the adjacent homes had been declared "hostile". In that circumstance, he went on, it was not clear that the marines had been in violation of the rules of engagement at that time.