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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A U.S. Marine general dropped all charges on Thursday against two Marines in the shooting deaths of 24 civilians in Haditha, scene of what Iraqi witnesses said was a massacre by American troops.
The dismissal of charges means neither Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt nor Capt. Randy Stone will face a court-martial in connection with the events at Haditha, which have brought international condemnation of U.S. troops.
Five Marines still face charges in the November 19, 2005, shooting of two dozen unarmed men, women and children in Haditha, which prosecutors say came in retaliation for the death of a beloved comrade, Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas, who was cut in half by a roadside bomb.
Sharratt, 22, had been charged with three counts of premeditated murder and Stone, 35, with dereliction of duty for failing to properly report the civilian deaths.
Defense attorneys conceded civilians were killed at Haditha but said they died during chaotic fighting with insurgents after the roadside blast.
In dismissing the charges against Sharratt and Stone after what he said was an exhaustive review, Lt. Gen. James Mattis cited the difficult battle conditions and a "shadowy enemy" whose forces hid among civilians.
"With the dismissal of these charges Lance Cpl. Sharratt may conclude that he did his best to live up to the standards, followed by U.S. fighting men throughout our many wars, in the face of life or death decisions made in a matter of seconds in combat," Mattis said.
"As he has always remained cloaked in the presumption of innocence, with this dismissal of charges, he remains in the eyes of the law -- and in my eyes, innocent."
Mattis said that while Stone may have made mistakes, they did not "rise to the level of criminal behavior."
Sharratt and Stone were among eight U.S. Marines originally charged in the Haditha case in December 2006. Four of the defendants were charged with murder and four others with dereliction of duty.
Murder charges were dismissed in April against Sgt. Sanick Dela Cruz, who has been granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony in the case.
Dela Cruz told a military court in May that he watched his squad leader, Sgt. Frank Wuterich, shoot down five Iraqi civilians who were trying to surrender. Later this month Wuterich, the accused ringleader in Haditha, will face a hearing to determine if he should face a court-martial.