CAMP PENDLETON, Calif (Reuters) - A U.S. Marine sergeant accused of leading a 2005 massacre of 24 civilians in Haditha, Iraq, expressed sorrow for the killings as he returned to military court on Tuesday to face sentencing.
Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich, 31, pleaded guilty on Monday to a single count of dereliction of duty as part of a deal with military prosecutors in which more serious charges of involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault were dismissed.
The plea deal, decried by a victim's relative as "an insult to all Iraqis," cut short Wuterich's court-martial and ended the final prosecution over killings that roiled the Marine Corps and drew international condemnation of American troops.
As part of his guilty plea, Wuterich accepted responsibility for providing negligent verbal instructions to the Marines under his command when he told them to "shoot first and ask questions later," which resulted in the deaths of innocent civilians.
Wuterich, in his pre-sentencing statement, added that when he gave that order, "the intent wasn't that they should shoot civilians. It was that they would not hesitate in the face of the enemy."
The squad leader, who was originally charged with murder in the case, said he realized that his name "will always be associated with a massacre, being a cold-blooded baby killer, an 'out-of-control monster.'"
But he insisted that he and his fellow Marines behaved honorably under extreme circumstances, and said he "never fired my weapon at any women or children that day."
In a final plea for leniency, his civilian defense lawyer, Neal Puckett, said his client "is not evil."
"He is decent and moral, and his integrity is unfaltering," Puckett said. "He knows that his Marine Corps career has come to an end."
Wuterich faces a maximum sentence of three months of confinement, forfeiture of two-thirds of his pay for three months and a reduction in rank when he is sentenced on Tuesday, a Camp Pendleton spokesman said. Any discharge process faced by Wuterich, a father of three girls, will be separate from his sentencing.
Word of the sentence sparked outrage in Iraq, where Ali Badr, a Haditha resident and relative of one of the victims, called it "an insult to all Iraqis" and "solid proof that the Americans don't respect human rights."
Wuterich was accused of being the ringleader in a series of November 19, 2005, shootings and grenade attacks that left two dozen civilians dead in Haditha, a city west of Baghdad that was then an insurgent hotspot.
The killings were portrayed by Iraqi witnesses and military prosecutors as a massacre of unarmed civilians -- men, women and children -- carried out by Marines in anger after a member of their unit was killed by a roadside bomb.
Defense lawyers argued the deaths resulted from a fast-moving combat situation in which the Marines believed they were under enemy fire.
In his statement on Tuesday, Wuterich, directed an apology to family members of those killed in Iraq, he said, "Words cannot express my sorrow for the loss of your loved ones." But he insisted civilians were not singled out for attack.
"The truth is, I don't believe anyone in my squad ... behaved in any way that was dishonorable or contrary to the highest ideals that we all live by as Marines," he said, reading calmly and deliberately. "But even with the best intentions, sometimes combat actions can cause tragic results."
Called to the stand as a character witness on Tuesday, Jeffrey Dinsmore, an intelligence officer with Wuterich's battalion, said "insurgent groups ... had complete control over the city (of Haditha) at the time" and the unit had received word that an ambush was likely.
He also said insurgents were known to commandeer homes as places to launch attacks and to deliberately use civilians as human shields.
Six out of the eight Marines originally accused in the case had their charges dismissed by military judges, and a seventh was cleared of criminal wrongdoing.
Wuterich enlisted in the Marines after his 1998 graduation from high school, where he was an athletic honor-roll student and played with the marching band. He was serving his second tour of duty in Iraq when the Haditha incident occurred.
Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Doina Chiacu