updated 8/9/2007 4:48:47 PM ET 2007-08-09T20:48:47

All charges have been dismissed against two Marines accused in the killings of 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha, the Marine Corps announced Thursday.

Lance Cpl. Justin L. Sharratt, 22, of Canonsburg, Pa., was charged with murdering three brothers and Capt. Randy Stone, 35, a battalion lawyer from Dunkirk, Md., was charged with failing to adequately report and investigate the Nov. 19, 2005, combat action in which women and children were among the dead.

In his decision to dismiss charges, Lt. Gen. James Mattis, the commanding general with jurisdiction in the case, said he was sympathetic to the challenges Marines on the ground face in Iraq.

“Where the enemy disregards any attempt to comply with ethical norms of warfare, we exercise discipline and restraint to protect the innocent caught on the battlefield,” Mattis wrote in his letter to Sharratt. “Our way is right, but it is also difficult.”

Decision follows recommendations
The decision to drop charges against the two Marines loosely follows earlier recommendations by investigating officers who listened to evidence against them, though in Stone’s case it was recommended that he face an administrative hearing.

Four enlisted Marines and four officers were initially charged in the killings. Prosecutors dropped charges against one, Sgt. Sanick P. Dela Cruz of Chicago, who was charged with five counts of murder, and gave him immunity to testify against his squad mates.

The central figure in the case is squad leader Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich of Meriden, Conn., who faces 18 counts of murder. His preliminary hearing is scheduled for Aug. 22.

The other enlisted Marine, Lance Cpl. Stephen Tatum of Edmond, Okla., has attended a preliminary hearing, but no recommendation has been made about whether he should stand trial for murder.

Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani of Rangely, Colo., is the only other officer aside from Stone to have attended a preliminary hearing. The investigator in that case recommended Chessani face a general court-martial on charges of dereliction of duty for failing to investigate.

'You did your best'
The two dozen Iraqis died after a roadside bomb killed Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas, of El Paso, Texas, who was driving a Humvee.

In the aftermath of the blast, Marines shot a group of men by a car then cleared several houses with grenades and gunfire. The Marines have said they believed the houses were occupied by insurgents, but the victims included elderly people, women and children, including several who were slain in bed.

Prosecutors alleged that Sharratt and other members of his squad did not properly identify their targets as being insurgents before opening fire. Sharratt contends the Iraqi men he confronted were insurgents and at least one was holding an AK-47 rifle when he fired at them.

Mattis concluded that Sharratt acted appropriately and within his rules of engagement.

“With the dismissal of these charges, you may fairly conclude that you did your best to live up to the standards ... in the face of life or death decisions made by you in a matter of seconds in combat,” Mattis wrote in his statement, dated Aug. 8 and made public Thursday.

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