A United States soldier was found guilty Wednesday by a military jury in Hawaii of aggravated assault over the death last June of an unarmed civilian near the northern Iraq city of Kirkuk. But the jury acquitted the soldier, Army Spc. Christopher Shore of Winder, Georgia, of manslaughter. The assault conviction carries a maximum jail term of eight years and dishonorable discharge.
At the same time, a pretrial hearing began Wednesday for US Marine Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, who led a squad that allegedly killed 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha in 2005. Sergeant Wuterich is accused of voluntary manslaughter and other crimes in the Haditha killings, which was first uncovered by Time magazineand led to criticism of the marines' conduct as well as comparisons with past wartime massacres, including My Lai in Vietnam. Time later issued a correction about its story.
The court martial of Wuterich and other Haditha-related suspects are the largest so far involving US soldiers accused of unlawfully killing civilians and obstructing justice in Iraq. However, a PBS documentary aired Tuesday cast doubt over the accuracy of media coverage and commentary on the incident.
The Honolulu Star-Bulletin reports that Army Specialist Shore had initially been charged with premeditated murder over the June 23 incident in Kirkuk. But the charge was later reduced to manslaughter by the outgoing commander of the 25th Infantry Division.
Shore said that he was ordered to shoot the unnamed Iraqi man by his patrol leader during a nighttime raid in the town of Al-Shaheed outside Kirkuk. The civilian was later pronounced dead, with multiple shot wounds in the head and chest, the jury was told. The patrol leader, Sgt. 1st Class Trey Corrales, faces separate charges over the killing, including premeditated murder and obstructing justice.
Shore was expressionless when the verdict was read in court at Wheeler Army Airfield and declined to comment as he hugged friends and relatives outside, the Associated Press reports. He later spoke emotionally in court about the stress of losing members of his platoon in combat.
"I know it's real easy if you've never been in this situation to Monday quarterback and say what the law says," he told the court. "You don't know until you're there."
Shore earlier told the court that he intentionally fired to miss the Iraqi man, but prosecutors argued that the decision to shoot was itself illegal. The defense criticized the investigation as "sloppy" and questioned why no forensic evidence was presented to the court. It also said that Shore feared being attacked by Sergeant Corrales if he disobeyed the order to shoot.
The two members of the 25th Infantry Division are not the first to be charged with killing Iraqi civilians, reports the Star-Bulletin. Pvt. 1st Class Edward Richmond Jr. was convicted in 2004 and sentenced to three years in prison for killing an Iraqi in his custody. His defense had argued that he followed the orders of his unit commander. Other soldiers in the unit charged in the same case were acquitted of involvement.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution says that military veterans and others are increasingly vocal against overzealous criminal prosecutions of US soldiers over civilian deaths. Many have set up websites that defend the actions of US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Army has so far charged 29 soldiers serving in Iraq with murder, of which 13 have been convicted and eight found guilty of a lesser offense, the Journal-Constitution reports.
"If you are charged with a capital crime in Iraq or Afghanistan, we will try and help you," said Pat Barnes, a retired Marine who also went to Vietnam twice and now helps run Military Combat Defense Fund, a nonprofit that disburses money to service members who need legal help. One who benefited is Corrales, Shore's platoon leader.
The group's mission statement says: "We believe in the fundamental decency of our armed forces." Barnes' take is more pragmatic. "These people aren't rich. They are blue-collar kids," he said. "Who knows the circumstances? I can't make a judgment but we can help."
The trial of Wuterich, the enlisted Marine commander in the Haditha case, is to begin March 3. The case centers on the conduct of a Marine squad whose convoy was hit by a roadside bomb in Haditha, Iraq, on Nov. 19, 2005. One marine died and another was wounded. In retaliation, squad members allegedly killed 24 men, women, and children in nearby houses.
A military prosecutor complained Wednesday at a pretrial hearing that marines forced to testify as witnesses against Wuterich were being "far from cooperative," reports the Associated Press. At the hearing, Wuterich's defense sought to block the showing of explicit photographs from the trial, but Judge Col. Jeffrey Meeks said the photos were allowed for use only as they related to witness testimony of events.
Four Marines were initially charged with murder in Haditha and four officers were accused of covering up the deaths, but most of the serious charges have since been dropped amid ongoing controversy over the killings. In addition to Wuterich, regimental commander Lt. Colonel Jeffery Chessani faces a court-martial for dereliction of duty in not investigating the incident properly, reports the Jurist website, run by the University of Pittsburgh's law school. Another officer was arraigned on charges of obstructing justice in the case.
"Rules of Engagement," a film aired this week by the PBS series Frontline, examines the Haditha incident and deflates some of the initial claims, particularly by Democratic Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, a Marines veteran, while also showing the blurred lines between lawful and unlawful deaths. It includes interviews with senior military commanders and witnesses to the Haditha killings. Wuterich believed his squad was doing what they had been trained to do when entering insurgent houses. "I wanted them to understand that hesitation to shoot would only result in the four of us being killed," he told a military hearing, in reference to his men.
A reporter at the Los Angeles Times who has embedded several times with Marine units in Iraq praises the film for its evenhanded approach and for exploring the tactical and ethical complexities in play. He reports that the Marines stationed in Haditha are preparing to hand over their base, a former school, to Iraqi troops and move out of the city. On the walls, soon to be painted over, is the name of Marine Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas, who died in the roadside bombing in November 2005.
While reaction to the documentary was mixed, Threats Watch reports that several military blogs, which typically view PBS as overly liberal, have welcomed "Rules of Engagement" for its balanced and fair reporting. "Frontline Convinces Me – Haditha Marines Innocent," is the title of one military blog posting.