CAMP PENDLETON, California (Reuters) - Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, the U.S. Marine squad leader accused of leading a November 2005 massacre of 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha, said on Thursday that he regretted the deaths but insisted he had acted properly to keep his men alive.
“I will bear the memory of the events of that day forever and will always mourn the unfortunate deaths of the innocent Iraqis who were killed during our response to the attack,” Wuterich, 27, told an evidentiary hearing in his first military court testimony.
“Because families got killed that day and I can look at my family and I know I would not want that to happen to them,” said Wuterich, who has three young daughters. His wife and parents watched from the back of the courtroom.
The Haditha incident, one of a series in which U.S. forces mistreated or killed Iraqi civilians, sparked international anger when it was first reported last year.
Wearing desert camouflage fatigues with sleeves rolled above his tattooed forearms, Wuterich described a complicated combat situation that he said required lethal force.
“Based on the information I had at the time, based on the situation, I made the best decision I could have at the time,” he said calmly and with confidence.
An investigating officer hearing the evidence will recommend whether the case should go to trial. If convicted on the charges of murdering 17 Iraqi civilians, Wuterich could be sentenced to life in prison.
Wuterich, one of five Marines still facing legal proceedings over the Haditha killings, admitted he shot five Iraqis near a white car after a member of his unit was killed by a roadside bomb.
“Engaging was the only choice: the threat had to be neutralized,” he said at a small military courtroom in Camp Pendleton north of San Diego. “They were not complying and, in fact, they were starting to run.”
Other witnesses from his squad have testified that the Iraqis had their hands in the air and were not running. Marines did not find any weapons at the scene.
Wuterich, the squad leader serving a seven-month tour of duty in Iraqi, said he then moved to clear two houses.
“The four of us aggressively advanced on the house and on approach I advised the team something like shoot first and ask questions later or don’t hesitate to shoot,” Wuterich said, reading from a prepared statement.
“I can’t remember my exact words but I wanted them to understand that hesitation to shoot would only result in the four of us being killed.”
The Marines fired grenades into the houses then shot the inhabitants, including women and children, resulting in another 19 dead. Wuterich said he did not fire any shots inside the houses and only later learned women and children were among the dead.
Some witnesses have said such a “shoot first and ask questions later” logic was improper.
Even as he described horrific deaths, Wuterich projected an earnest, level-headed demeanor that contrasted with some other U.S. soldiers who have been tried over Iraq abuses. Answering questions from his lawyer, Wuterich said he enjoyed Iraqi culture and sometimes played soccer with local children.
He also said he was disturbed when a fellow Marine whose testimony is key in the case -- and whose charges were dismissed in exchange for this testimony -- urinated on the skull of an Iraqi killed near the white car.
In questioning, Wuterich attorney Neil Puckett carefully elicited responses that suggested his client followed his training that day -- an essential part of defense strategy.
Military courts have imprisoned lower-ranking soldiers in a number of the Iraq abuse and civilian killing cases, while officers have faced administrative sanctions.