The Baghdad government vowed Wednesday to take legal action after an American marine was spared jail by a US military court over the massacre of 24 unarmed civilians in the Iraqi town of Haditha in 2005.
The verdict, widely panned in Iraq as being too light, closed a case that fuelled anger and highlighted why authorities demanded Americans be subject to local laws in failed talks to extend the US military presence in the country beyond 2011.
Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich, who led an eight-man squad whose other members have all been let off, was sentenced to 90 days’ confinement but will not serve the term, under a deal with prosecutors.
“We think that the punishment is not suitable with the crime that was committed,” Ali Mussawi, spokesman for Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, told AFP.
“We will keep pursuing the legal channels to fight for the rights of our citizens who were victims of indiscriminate shooting, without having committed any sins,” he said, without giving further details.
Wuterich admitted one count of negligent dereliction of duty Monday, but charges of manslaughter over the killings — whose victims included women and children — were dropped as part of a plea deal.
The 31-year-old — who denied he was a “cold-blooded baby-killer” — was sentenced to 90 days of confinement and reduction in rank to private, said a statement from Camp Pendleton, California, where he has been on court martial.
But it said: “Per the terms of the pre-trial agreement, the convening authority disapproved any adjudged confinement and therefore Staff Sergeant Wuterich will not serve any of the confinement sentence.”
The judge said he was not reducing Wuterich’s pay because of his financial situation as a single father.
In all, 24 Iraqi civilians were killed — 19 in several houses along with five men who pulled up in a car where the marines were on patrol in the Iraqi town of Haditha on November 19, 2005.
The victims included 10 women or children killed at point-blank range. Six people were killed in one house, most shot in the head, including women and children huddled in a bedroom.
In Haditha itself, residents of those killed reacted with shock and disgust.
“This is an assault on the blood of Iraqis,” lamented Khalid Salman, a Haditha councillor and lawyer for the victims.
“That is only a punishment for… small crimes. But killing 24 innocent people, and only receiving a punishment of three months? This is an assault on humanity.”
Back in California, Wuterich himself voiced sorrow, but insisted he was not a “cold-blooded baby killer.”
Addressing three surviving family members of those killed in Haditha, he said on Tuesday: “Words cannot express my sorrow for the loss of your loved ones. 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 November 19, 2005,” he said, reading in a resonant, calm voice from a prepared statement.
But he added: “For six years, I have had to accept that my name will always be associated with a massacre, being a cold-blooded baby killer, an ‘out of control’ monster, and a conspiring liar.
“There’s nothing I can do about whoever believes these things. All I can do is continue to be who I’ve always been — me. And none of those labels have ever been, or ever will be, who I am.”
Wuterich’s lead defence lawyer Neal Puckett said his client would not comment any further on the case. “He now values his privacy more than anything,” he said.
As for the outcome of the trial, Puckett said, “I don’t call it a success. There are no winners here.”
Before the sentence, Wuterich’s lead defence lawyer Neal Puckett argued that Wuterich should not be punished.
“The appropriate punishment is no punishment,” he said, adding: that Wuterich “is not evil, he is decent and moral and his integrity is unfaltering. It didn’t happen in a legal vacuum, it was in combat.”
The other seven Marines charged in the case have been exonerated through various legal rulings, fuelling anger in Iraq, where authorities had pushed for US troops to be subject to Iraqi justice before the US pullout in December.
Just 157 American soldiers now remain in Iraq under the authority of the US embassy, charged with training their domestic counterparts, in a country where there were once nearly 170,000 soldiers on more than 500 bases.