Critics say Haditha sends message that U.S. won’t punish military
Several analysts said they feared that the deal Monday to end Marine Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich's court-martial in the killing of 24 Iraqis would harden the widespread conviction in the international community that the U.S. does not hold its troops accountable for misdeeds or meet the standards of conduct it attempts to impose on other countries.
"This is only going to reinforce that sense," said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch, which seeks to curtail inhumane conduct in war. "This has contributed significantly to the cynicisms of people in the region about America's rhetoric — about America standing for principles. When push comes to shove, when it comes to looking at the misconduct of their own soldiers, there is no accountability."
Wuterich will plead guilty to a single count of negligent dereliction of duty, with a maximum sentence of three months in the brig. Other charges were dropped. Wuterich, 31, was accused of manslaughter, assault and dereliction of duty for allegedly leading his squad on a bloody rampage on the morning of Nov. 19, 2005, after a roadside bomb killed one Marine and injured two in the Euphrates River town of Haditha. Twenty-four unarmed Iraqis died.
One former Marine prosecutor said the Haditha case would be studied by future generations of military lawyers as an example of how not to investigate and prosecute suspected war crimes.
Amos Guiora, a University of Utah law professor and former career legal officer with the Israeli Defense Forces, agreed that the plea deal "creates a greater perception that the misconduct of American soldiers goes largely unpunished by the United States."
“It’s going to be hard to explain to the world that at the end of the day this fellow will serve three months and that the charges have been so significantly reduced,” Guiora said.
Guiora called incidents like the Haditha killings and the abuse of foreign captives at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison “festering wounds” that undermine host country support for U.S. military operations abroad and place American soldiers at greater risk of insurgent attacks.
“This is why it is going to be very important to ensure that the world understands that behind this were legal limitations, evidentiary limitations, and not policy to let Americans off scot free,” said Guiora.
There was no immediate reaction from inside Iraq, where the Haditha case, like other notorious instances of civilian deaths at the hands of U.S. troops or contractors, had come to symbolize what many Iraqis viewed as the impunity of American forces. Resentment about Haditha and other cases of civilian deaths blamed on U.S. personnel was a major factor in Baghdad's decision to remove immunity from prosecution for U.S. forces there.
That move hastened the end of the more than eight-year U.S. military presence in Iraq at the end of last year, with the Obama administration deciding to withdraw all U.S. combat forces after Washington and Baghdad failed to reach a new agreement that provided immunity.
-- Scott Gold and Carol J. Williams
Photo: U.S. Marines help patrol Haditha, Iraq, in 2005. Credit: Army Cpl. Kevin N. McCall / Associated Press