Iraq war crime trial: Opening statements set for Haditha killings

SAN DIEGO, UNITED STATES // A jury of battle-hardened marines will judge the biggest criminal case against US troops in the Iraq war.


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Opening arguments were heard yesterday in the trial of Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich - more than six years after his Marine squad in 2005 killed 24 Iraqis, including unarmed women and children, in the town of Haditha.

Military prosecutors face an uphill battle trying to prove, so many years after the killings, that Sgt Wuterich's actions were criminal, legal experts say.

The civilians were killed when his squad used grenades and gunfire to clear several homes in the town after a roadside bomb exploded near a US convoy, killing one marine.

Others believe the military jury - made up of Iraq veterans - will be better equipped for the case over a civilian one in which people may not feel comfortable judging what is considered to be an appropriate reaction in the chaos of war. Many of the jurors carried out house-clearing operations like the one Sgt Wuterich ordered.

"Military jurors may say: 'Look tens of thousands of us went to war zones and didn't kill civilians', but they may also be willing to consider the fact that the individual may have been caught in the fog of war," said the former navy officer David Glazier, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

The killings in Haditha on November 19, 2005, are considered among the war's defining moments, further tainting America's reputation when it was already at a low point after the release of photos of prisoner abuse by US soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison.

A full investigation did not begin until a Time magazine reporter inquired about the deaths in January 2006.

Sgt Wuterich is one of eight Marines initially charged. Charges were dropped or dismissed against six, and one was acquitted.

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