updated 8/30/2006 8:35:29 PM ET 2006-08-31T00:35:29

The Marine who led an Iraq mission in which up to 24 civilians were killed is “an outstanding squad leader and undoubtedly” deserves a medal for his actions, his commander said in a memo weeks later.

Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich is among troops under investigation for allegations they deliberately killed Iraqi civilians — many of them women and children — after coming under attack Nov. 19 in Haditha.

Earlier this month, Pentagon officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told The Associated Press that evidence collected about the Haditha killings supported allegations that Marines deliberately fired on civilians.

His attorney released a document Wednesday to the AP in which Wuterich’s platoon commander wrote that Wuterich had established security, then “led a counterattack on the buildings ... where his Marines were still receiving sporadic fire.”

“That counterattack turned the tide of the ambush and killed a number of insurgents still attempting to fight or attempting to flee the area,” said platoon leader Lt. William T. Kallop.

In a two-page memo, Kallop laid out several previous missions in which Wuterich had participated.

‘He was a good Marine’
“He is an outstanding squad leader and undoubtedly a worthy recipient of the NAM ‘V,”’ Kallop wrote, referring to the Navy Achievement Medal with a combat distinguishing device.

“What it shows is that he was a good Marine, well respected, and he was put in for an award for heroic actions on that day,” said Wuterich attorney Neal Puckett.

The document was first revealed in Wednesday editions of The Washington Post, which said the memo was written in January and reveals that Kallop believed Marines were under attack when they stormed civilian homes and opened fire.

The Marines initially reported after the killings at Haditha that 15 Iraqi civilians had been killed by a makeshift roadside bomb and in crossfire between Marines and insurgent attackers. Based on accounts from survivors and human rights groups, Time magazine reported in March that the killings were deliberate acts by the Marines.

The Marine Corps and Navy prosecutors are reviewing evidence to determine whether to recommend criminal charges.

Marine Corps spokesman Lt. Col. Scott Fazekas said officials have found no record that any medal was awarded.

Military won’t seek death penalty
In Camp Pendleton, Calif., a military prosecutor said Wednesday that the government will not seek the death penalty against a Marine Corps private who is among eight service members charged with murder and other crimes in the shooting of an Iraqi civilian, .

IMAGE: Camp Pendleton
Fred Greaves  /  Reuters
U.S. Marines walk Wednesday through a secure area of Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, Calif., near the courtroom where Pfc. John J. Jodka III faces murder charges.
Lt. Col. John Baker announced the prosecution’s position during a hearing for Pfc. John J. Jodka III, 20. It was not clear whether the recommendation applied to the six other Marines and one Navy corpsman also charged.

The hearing for Jodka and a separate one for another Marine, Cpl. Marshall Magincalda, 23, are part of the process to determine whether the defendants should face courts-martial.

The Marines and corpsman are charged in the shooting of Hashim Ibrahim Awad, 52, in the village of Hamdania. Iraqi witnesses told the military that Marines and a sailor kidnapped Awad on April 26, bound his feet, dragged him from his home and shot him to death in a roadside hole.

Jodka is accused of firing on Awad. Magincalda is suspected of binding Awad’s feet and kidnapping him.

‘Inflammatory’ statements contested
Earlier, lawyers for Jodka argued vehemently that “inflammatory” statements made by the private and other Marines should be kept secret before trial.

Retired Col. Jane Siegel, who represents Jodka, said disclosing the 16 statements about the incident during a highly publicized hearing would hurt jury selection for Jodka’s expected court martial.

“To openly discuss contents will completely pollute the local and national jury pool,” Siegel said. “Some of it is very inflammatory.”

A separate proceeding on Wednesday for Magincalda lasted only 30 minutes.

Investigating officer Col. Robert S. Chester, who is hearing the case, said the defense had asked for the hearing to be closed to the public, fearing publicity might hurt Magincalda’s ability to receive a fair trial.

Chester opposed the request, saying the public has a “very compelling right to hear these proceedings.”

Friday deadline for questions
Chester said he would tell prosecutors by Friday whether he had questions about any of their evidence.

Prosecutor Capt. Nicholas L. Gannon urged Chester to focus on statements by three members of the squad, including an alleged confession by squad leader Sgt. Lawrence G. Hutchins III.

The hearings held under Article 32 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice are equivalent to civilian preliminary or grand jury hearings.

Both defendants have been held in the Camp Pendleton brig since returning from Iraq.

The Marines have the opportunity to mount a defense, call witnesses or even testify themselves. Their lawyers were expected to challenge use of the defendants’ pretrial statements by contending they were subjected to heavy-handed inquiries with threats of the death penalty.

The other defendants, all members of the Camp Pendleton-based 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, are expected to have separate hearings in coming weeks. The charges include kidnapping, murder and conspiracy.

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