CAMP PENDLETON, California — A Marine facing sentencing over one of the worst attacks on civilians by U.S. troops during the Iraq War told a judge Tuesday in a surprise development that he never fired his weapon at any women or children.
The statement by Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich came a day after he pleaded guilty to a minor charge of negligent dereliction of duty as part of a deal that will mean little or no jail time.
"The truth is: I never fired any weapon at any women or children that day," Wuterich said in a statement during his sentencing hearing.
Wuterich also said in his statement that his guilty plea should not suggest that he believes his men behaved badly or that they acted in any way that was dishonorable to their country.
Wuterich, 31, led the squad that killed 24 unarmed Iraqis in assaults in the town of Haditha in 2005. As part of a deal that stopped his manslaughter trial Monday, Wuterich faces no more than three months in confinement for the lesser charge.
"In no way should my acceptance of responsibility ever be considered an indictment of the Marines or the commanders," Wuterich said in his first statement to the court since his case went to trial earlier this month.
He also spoke to the family members of the Iraqi victims.
"I wish to assure you that on that day, it was never my intention to harm you or your families," he said. "I know that you are the real victims of Nov. 19, 2005."
In Iraq, residents of the Euphrates river town expressed shock and outrage at the plea deal. A survivor of the killings, Awis Fahmi Hussein, showed his scars from being hit by a bullet in the back.
"I was expecting that the American judiciary would sentence this person to life in prison and that he would appear and confess in front of the whole world that he committed this crime, so that America could show itself as democratic and fair," he said.
Prosecutors had implicated Wuterich in 19 of the 24 deaths.
A former squad mate testified during the trial that he joined Wuterich in firing in a dark back bedroom of one of the homes where he saw small silhouettes. Later, when former Cpl. Stephen Tatum returned, he said he found women and children had been killed.
Wuterich began his statement in court by telling the family members of victims, "Words cannot express my sorrow for the loss of your loved one. I know there is nothing I can say to ease your pain. I wish to assure you that on that day, it was never my intention (to) harm you or your families. I know that you are the real victims of Nov. 19, 2005."
He went on to say he went to Iraq to do his duty, serve his country and do the best job he could.
"When my Marines and I cleared those houses that day, I responded to what I perceived as a threat and my intention was to eliminate that threat in order to keep the rest of my Marines alive," he said. "So when I told my team to shoot first and ask questions later, the intent wasn't that they would shoot civilians, it was that they would not hesitate in the face of the enemy."
Military prosecutors worked for more than six years to bring Wuterich to trial on manslaughter charges that could have sent him away to prison for life.
But only weeks after the long-awaited trial started, they offered Wuterich the deal that stopped the proceedings.
Wuterich now faces no more than three months in confinement.
It was a stunning outcome for the last defendant in the case once compared with the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. The seven other Marines initially charged were exonerated or had their cases dropped.
Military judge Lt. Col. David Jones began hearing arguments from both sides Tuesday at Camp Pendleton before making a sentencing recommendation for Wuterich that will be considered by the commander of Marine Corps Forces Central Command.
Legal experts said the case was fraught with errors made by investigators and the prosecution that let it drag on for years. The prosecution was also hampered by squad mates who acknowledged they had lied to investigators initially and later testified in exchange for having their cases dropped, bringing into question their credibility.
In addition, Wuterich was seen as taking the fall for senior leaders and more seasoned combat veterans, analysts said. It was his first time in combat when he led the squad on Nov. 19, 2005.
Brian Rooney, an attorney for another former defendant, said cases like Haditha are difficult to prosecute because a military jury is unlikely to question decisions made in combat unless wrongdoing is clear-cut and egregious, like rape.
"If it's a gray area, fog-of-war, you can't put yourself in a Marine's situation where he's legitimately trying to do the best he can," said Rooney, who represented Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani, the highest-ranking Marine charged in the case. "When you're in a town like Haditha or Fallujah, you've got bad guys trying to kill you and trying to do it in very surreptitious ways."
The Haditha attack 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.
It still fuels anger in Iraq today.
"We wonder about such a sentence issued against the defendant. We called upon US to be fair in passing sentences. Regrettably, we are disappointed about the issuance of such sentences," said Khalid Salman Rasif, a member of the Provincial Council in Haditha, adding he would contact the lawyer for victims' families for an explanation.
Kamil al-Dulaimi, a Sunni lawmaker from the Anbar provincial capital of Ramadi, called the plea agreement proof that "Americans still deal with Iraqis without any respect."
"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."
Wuterich, the father of three children, had faced the possibility of life behind bars when he was charged with nine counts of manslaughter, which will be dropped under the deal. Along with facing a maximum of three months in confinement, he could also lose two-thirds of his pay and see his rank demoted to private when he's sentenced.
Prosecutors declined to comment on the plea deal.
During the trial before a jury of combat Marines who served in Iraq, prosecutors argued 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.
In the deal, Wuterich acknowledged that his orders misled his men to believe they could shoot without hesitation and not follow the rules of engagement that required troops to positively identify their targets before they raided the homes.
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.
He said his orders were based on the guidance of his platoon commander at the time, and that the squad did not take any gunfire during the 45-minute raid.
Many of his squad mates testified that they do not believe to this day that they did anything wrong because they feared insurgents were inside hiding.
Haditha prompted commanders to demand troops be more careful in distinguishing between civilians and combatants.
Associated Press writers Barbara Surk and Mazin Yahya in Baghdad, Elliot Spagat in San Diego and Raquel Dillon in Los Angeles contributed to this report.