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A United States military court yesterday determined that the US Marine Corps sergeant who pled guilty to involvement in killing Iraqi civilians in a notorious 2005 massacre will serve no jail time, sparking outrage in Iraq.
In 2005, a group of Marines killed 24 unarmed men, women, and children in Haditha, a town of 85,000 people located west of Baghdad, after a roadside bomb killed a member of their squad, reports the Washington Post. Seven soldiers, plus squad leader Wuterich, were initially charged by a US military court, but one was acquitted and charges against the six others were dropped.
Wuterich’s initial charges of involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault were dismissed in return for his guilty plea. He could have faced a maximum of three months in prison, but in the end he received only a demotion and a pay cut.
Haditha was a hotbed for insurgent and militant activity in 2005, and in the months leading up to the Nov. 19 incident by US forces, at least 20 Marines were killed. A local journalist released a video of the attack’s aftermath that documented walls pocked with bullet holes and bodies of women and children in a morgue, reports Time Magazine. The attack is considered one of the war’s defining moments, and provided more fodder for already strong anti-American sentiments in the region.
Wuterich maintains his squad did not behave dishonorably, reports the Washington Post.
“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.”
Throughout the war, many Iraqis looked to the US legal system to provide justice for what they saw as war crimes against Iraqis, reports the Sydney Morning Herald. For some, the ruling met the bleak expectations many Iraqis hold for the US after nearly a decade of war. The Sydney Morning Herald reports:
''This is not new and it's not new for the American courts that already did little about Abu Ghraib and other crimes in Iraq,'' Khalid Salman, 45, said. His cousin was killed by the marines in the Haditha massacre in November 2005.
However, the military court’s decision to demote Wuterich's rank to private in lieu of jail time is one more blow to the idea of US justice system being a source of guidance or authority in Iraq, according to the Washington Post.
“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,” survivor Awis Fahmi Hussein told the Washington Post, showing his scars from a bullet wound to the back.
The Telegraph reports that the ruling is viewed as “…an insult to all Iraqis,” while the Associated Press reports that it reopened old wounds – both with the US and the Iraqi government. The predominantly Sunni region has been unable to convince its Shiite-led government to condemn the murders or push to bring those responsible to trial.
"We are deeply disappointed by this unfair deal," said Khalid Salman Rasif, an Anbar provincial council member from Haditha. "The U.S. soldier will receive a punishment that is suitable for a traffic violation.
"We blame Iraqi officials because they did not take any actions to make the criminals stand trial," said Naji Fahmi, 45-year-old government employee who was shot in the stomach during what became known as the Haditha massacre.