BAGHDAD Iraq plans legal action on behalf of families of victims killed by U.S. troops in a 2005 massacre after the last soldier involved was spared jail time by a guilty plea with military authorities, a government spokesman said Thursday.
The Haditha massacre that killed 24 Iraqis, alongside the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and shootings by U.S. contractors in 2007, stoked global outrage against the nearly nine-year U.S. military presence after the 2003 invasion.
The last U.S. soldier accused in leading the massacre, Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich, was spared jail-time Tuesday when he was sentenced after pleading guilty to dereliction of duty. Original charges of involuntary manslaughter were dismissed.
"We will seek legal means to maintain the rights of the innocents citizens who were killed in the incident," said Ali al-Moussawi, media adviser to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
"We will follow whatever course we can follow legally," Moussawi said without giving details on actions.
The sentencing caused anger in Haditha, where a member of one of the victims' families called it an "insult to all Iraqis."
The killings were described by Iraqi witnesses and prosecutors as a massacre of unarmed civilians - including women and children -- carried out by Marines angered by the death of a member of their unit in a bombing.
"The ruling does not fit the crime," Moussawi said.
Wuterich was accused of being a ringleader when in November 19, 2005, a group of U.S. soldiers carried out a series of shootings and grenade attacks in Haditha, at the time a hotbed for insurgents fighting against American forces.
Six of the seven others originally charged had their cases dismissed by U.S. military judges. An eighth was cleared of any wrongdoing.
Wuterich apologized to the families in his sentencing and said civilians were not singled out. Defense lawyers had argued the deaths came during combat when the men believed they were under enemy fire.
The last U.S. troops left Iraq in December at the end of a security agreement. Talks to try to keep several thousand U.S. soldiers on Iraqi soil fell apart over the sensitive issue of legal immunity for troops involved in crimes.
In 2004, a scandal erupted over U.S. troops who photographed themselves humiliating and intimidating detainees in Abu Ghraib jail. In September 2007, U.S. security contractors killed at least 14 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad, sparking protests and international condemnation.
(Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Roger Atwood)