CAMP PENDLETON, California (Reuters) - Does a U.S. Marine serving in Iraq have the right to shoot first and ask questions later if hostile forces could be nearby?
The question is at the heart of the case against Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, 27, the U.S. Marine accused of leading a November 19, 2005, massacre of 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha.
Witnesses who were on patrol with Wuterich in Iraq have testified that he told them to “shoot first and ask questions later” as they followed up the killing of a popular Marine in their unit.
“This is not what we do,” Wuterich’s former commanding officer, Capt. Alfonso Capers, testified on Wednesday when asked about the “shoot first” remark attributed to Wuterich that day. “It says everybody is expendable.”
“It also puts a bad stain for people who believe in us at home,” Capers said.
Wuterich is charged with murdering 18 Iraqi civilians in Haditha after a member of his unit was killed by a roadside explosion. The incident, one of a series in which U.S. forces mistreated or killed Iraqi civilians, has sparked international anger since it was first reported last year.
In a number of those cases, military courts have imprisoned lower-ranking soldiers while officers faced administrative sanctions. On Wednesday, the U.S. Navy censured three Marine officers for failing to investigate the Haditha incident promptly, punishment that could end their careers.
The Wuterich proceedings go into their fourth and likely last day at Camp Pendleton north of San Diego on Thursday to determine whether prosecutors have enough evidence to bring the case to trial. If convicted, Wuterich could be sentenced to life in prison.
Capt. Capers did not serve with Wuterich in Iraq, but supervised him in training other Marines on battlefield rules of engagement, such as when shooting is justified and how to avoid killing innocent civilians.
The investigating officer, Lt. Col. Paul Ware — whose role is similar to that of a judge in overseeing the proceedings — jumped in with questions suggesting that the rules can become rather complicated in the heat of battle.
“How do you eliminate the bad guys without eliminating everyone else?” he asked.
Wuterich is accused of leading his platoon into two houses in which Marines first threw a grenade and then shot inhabitants, including women and children.
“Are you telling them it is against the law to throw a grenade?” Ware asked Capers.
Capers suggested the answers depend on circumstances, an exchange that at one point brought a smile to Wuterich’s face.
“They can go with a grenade,” Capers said about a scenario in which a known enemy was in a room. “If there is a threat in there, your first thing is to eliminate a threat.”
During the proceedings, Wuterich wore desert camouflage fatigues with sleeves rolled upon above his elbows, displaying tattooed forearms. His wife, with whom he has three children, and parents sat behind him in the courtroom.
Staff Sgt. Travis Fields, Wuterich’s unit leader, praised Wuterich’s demeanor among his platoon leaders. “He was probably the calmest one of them all,” he said.