CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. — A Marine sergeant who told his troops to "shoot first, ask questions later" in a raid that killed unarmed Iraqi women, children and elderly pleaded guilty Monday in a deal that will carry no more than three months confinement and end the largest and longest-running criminal case against U.S. troops from the Iraq War.
The agreement marked 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 implicated eight Marines in the deaths of 24 Iraqis in the town of Haditha in 2005.
Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, 31, of Meriden, Conn., who was originally accused of unpremeditated murder, pleaded guilty to negligent dereliction of duty for leading his troops to disregard rules of combat when they raided homes after a roadside bomb exploded near their convoy, killing one Marine and wounding two others.
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 halted his manslaughter trial at Camp Pendleton before a jury of combat Marines who served in Iraq.
Prosecutors also declined to comment on the plea deal. Marine Corps spokesman Lt. Col. Joseph Kloppel said the deal was not a reflection or in any way connected to how the prosecution felt their case was going in the trial.
Wuterich, the father of three children, had faced the possibility of life behind bars when he was charged with nine counts of manslaughter, among other charges.
The prosecution implicated him in 19 of the 24 deaths.
The manslaughter charges will be dropped now that Wuterich has pleaded guilty to the minor dereliction of duty charge. As a result, he faces a maximum of three months in confinement, two-thirds forfeiture of pay and a rank demotion to private when he's sentenced.
Both sides will present arguments Tuesday during a sentencing hearing. Seven other Marines were acquitted or had charges dismissed in the case.
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.
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 has said he regretted the loss of civilian lives but believed he was operating within military combat rules.
During Monday's hearing, he acknowledged he told the squad before the raids to shoot without hesitation, leading them to believe they could ignore the rules of combat. He told the judge that caused "tragic events."
"I think we all understood what we were doing so I probably just should have said nothing," Wuterich told the judge, Lt. Col. David Jones.
He admitted he did not positively identify his targets, as he had been trained to do. He also said he ordered his troops to assault the homes based on the guidance of his platoon commander at the time.
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.
After Haditha, Marine commanders ordered troops to try and distinguish between civilians and combatants.
The prosecution had several squad members testify, but many said they do not believe to this day that they did anything wrong because they feared insurgents were inside hiding. Several also acknowledged lying to investigators in the past, leaving doubt about their credibility.
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 could attack without hesitation, Kallop said.
Legal experts say the prosecution had an uphill battle because of the delay caused by six years of 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 the CBS newsmagazine "60 Minutes."
Prosecutors eventually won that right but overestimated its value, analysts say.
Solis, the former military prosecutor, said the military should have pushed for an earlier trial to ensure witnesses' memories were fresh.
"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.
Associated Press writers Barbara Surk and Mazin Yahya in Baghdad, and Elliot Spagat in San Diego contributed to this report.