'Shoot first... ask questions later,' ordered Marine

Military tribunal begins for US soldiers' killing of 24 Iraqi civilians – one of the war's worst episodes

Los Angeles

A US Marine ordered his men to "shoot first and ask questions later" during a dawn raid of Iraqi homes, resulting in the deaths of 24 civilians in what remains one of the most controversial episodes of the war, a military court has heard.

Prosecutors at Camp Pendleton in Southern California have begun laying out their case against Frank Wuterich, a Staff Sergeant who stands accused of nine counts of voluntary manslaughter in relation to a series of killings in the town of Haditha on 19 November 2005.

The military tribunal, which opened on Monday, will investigate why Staff Sgt Wuterich ordered his men to raid a group of homes about 150 yards from the site where a roadside bomb had just exploded, killing one of his comrades and seriously wounding two others.

In the ensuing attack, three women, seven children and a 76-year-old man died, almost all of them shot at close range. At least 15 of the 24 dead turned out to be unarmed, including a woman and her children who were shot by Staff Sgt Wuterich at point-blank range as they lay in their bed.

Staff Sgt Wuterich "never lost control of his squad... but he lost control of himself", prosecutors claimed in their opening statement. They said witnesses will describe a "lack of discipline" and a pervading attitude that under his command there were "essentially no rules" governing the killing of civilians. Four of the Iraqi men who died were apparently hiding in a wardrobe in one house.

In another house, an elderly man and his wife were reading the Koran when troops walked into their living room and shot them with M16 assault rifles.

After Staff Sgt Wuterich's men tossed a grenade into a third family home, causing the kitchen propane tank to explode, eight people died – including a two-year-old boy and three young girls.

In a fourth home, two children survived with minor injuries after older relatives used themselves as human shields to absorb machine-gun rounds.

The US authorities initially swept the episode under the carpet, issuing a report claiming that the deaths had occurred in crossfire when insurgents who had set a deadly roadside bomb then began attacking their convoy with "small arms".

But two months later it was elevated to international notoriety by Time magazine, which had interviewed 29 eyewitnesses to the killings. The report, "Massacre in Haditha", disputed the official version of events and described the incident as one of the worst cases of deliberate killings by American troops in modern history.

The court martial at which the 31-year-old Staff Sgt Wuterich is being tried will last a month. His jury consists of eight combat veterans, all of whom have previously served in Iraq.

Lawyers for the defence will argue that their client was acting within his official "rules of engagement"; though scared and upset by the death of his comrade in the roadside bombing that sparked the attack, he was nonetheless following standard operating procedure.

Staff Sgt Wuterich was 24 at the time and had never been on active combat duty before. The incident marked his first time under fire.

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