CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. — A Marine accused of killing unarmed Iraqi women and children pleaded guilty Monday to negligent dereliction of duty in a deal that will bring a maximum of three months confinement and end the largest and longest-running criminal case against U.S. troops to emerge from the Iraq War.
Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, 31, of Meriden, Conn., led the Marine squad in 2005 that killed 24 Iraqis in the town of Haditha in a series of raids on homes after a roadside bomb exploded near a Marine convoy, killing one Marine and wounding two others.
It was a stunning and muted end to the case once described as the Iraq War's version of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. The government failed to get one manslaughter conviction in the case that involved eight Marines.
The Haditha incident is considered among the war's defining moments, further tainting America's reputation when it was already at a low point after the release of photos of prisoner abuse by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison.
"The case doesn't end with a bang, it ends with a whimper and a pretty weak whimper at that," said Gary Solis, a former Marine Corps prosecutor and judge. "When you have 24 dead bodies and you get dereliction of duty, that's pretty good defense work."
Wuterich, his family and his attorneys declined to comment after he entered the plea that interrupted his trial at Camp Pendleton before a jury of combat Marines who served in Iraq.
Prosecutors also declined to comment on the plea deal.
The father of three children had faced the possibility of life behind bars. After pleading guilty to the minor charge, Wuterich now faces a maximum of three months in confinement, two-thirds forfeiture of pay and a rank demotion to private when he's sentenced, which will happen Tuesday morning. The plea agreement calls for manslaughter charges to be dropped.
Seven other Marines in his squad were acquitted or had charges dismissed.
The killings still fuel anger in Iraq after becoming the primary reason behind demands that U.S. troops not be given immunity from their court system.
Kamil al-Dulaimi, a Sunni lawmaker from the Anbar provincial capital of Ramadi, called the plea deal a travesty of justice for the victims and their families.
"It's just another barbaric act of Americans against Iraqis," al-Dulaimi told The Associated Press. "They spill the blood of Iraqis and get this worthless sentence for the savage crime against innocent civilians."
News of the plea agreement came late in the evening in Iraq just hours before curfew most cities still impose, producing no noticeable public reaction. Government officials didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.
The issue at the court martial was whether Wuterich reacted appropriately as a Marine squad leader in protecting his troops in the midst of a chaotic war or disregarded combat rules and ordered his men to shoot and blast indiscriminately at Iraqi civilians.
Wuterich was initially charged with nine counts of manslaughter, among other charges.
Prosecutors said he lost control after seeing the body of his friend blown apart by the bomb and led his men on a rampage in which they stormed two nearby homes, blasting their way in with gunfire and grenades. Among the dead was a man in a wheelchair.
Wuterich acknowledged Monday he was negligent in his duties because he told his squad to shoot first and ask questions later, or words to that effect, before the squad stormed the first home.
"Honestly, I probably should have said nothing," Wuterich told the judge, Lt. Col. David Jones. "I think we all understood what we were doing so I probably just should have said nothing."
Later he added: "I shouldn't have done that and it resulted in tragic events, sir."
Wuterich agreed with the judge that those words caused the deaths of unarmed men, women and children.
During Monday's hearing, Wuterich acknowledged he had been trained in rules of engagement before going to Iraq and again when he was deployed, but his words led his squad to believe they could ignore those rules.
He admitted he did not positively identify his targets, as he had learned to do in training. He said he ordered his troops to assault the homes based on the guidance of his platoon commander at the time.
"No one denies that the events ... were tragic, most of all Frank Wuterich," defense attorney Neal Puckett told the North County Times. "But the fact of the matter is that he has now been totally exonerated of the homicide charges brought against him by the government and the media. For the last six years, he has had his name dragged through the mud. Today, we hope, is the beginning of his redemption."
Solis said the government made a critical mistake by failing to push for an earlier trial, and that prosecutors were almost timid, standing by while the defense held up the case for years with motions. Witnesses may have had second thoughts about testifying and memories fade, he said.
Defense attorneys spoke to reporters while prosecutors were silent, potentially allowing jurors to be influenced by public opinion.
"Six years for a trial is unacceptable," said Solis, who teaches law of war at Georgetown University Law Center. "Delay is always to the benefit of the accused."
He said prosecutors may have been cowed by the Army's missteps in its handling of the death of former NFL star and Ranger Pat Tillman from friendly fire in Afghanistan in 2004.
Marine Corps spokesman Lt. Col. Joseph Kloppel said the plea deal was not a reflection or in any way connected to how the prosecution felt their case was going in the trial.
Wuterich also acknowledged in his plea that the squad did not take any gunfire during the 45-minute raid on the homes or find any weapons. Still, several squad members testified they do not believe they did anything wrong because they feared insurgents were inside hiding.
The prosecution was further hurt by the testimony of former Lt. William T. Kallop, Wuterich's former platoon commander, who said the squad was justified in its actions because the house was declared hostile. From what was understood of the rules of combat at the time, that meant Marines did not need to positively identify their targets, Kallop said.
Wuterich has said he regretted the loss of civilian lives but believed he was operating within military combat rules.
After Haditha, Marines commanders ordered troops to try and distinguish between civilians and combatants.
The trial was delayed for years by pre-trial wrangling between the defense and prosecution, including over whether the military could use unaired outtakes from an interview Wuterich gave in 2007 to CBS "60 Minutes." Prosecutors eventually won the right to view the footage.
Associated Press writers Barbara Surk and Mazin Yahya in Baghdad, and Elliot Spagat in San Diego contributed to this report.