updated 7/24/2008 10:18:12 PM ET 2008-07-25T02:18:12

The Marine Corps said Thursday that charges were dismissed against a Camp Pendleton Marine sniper accused in the shooting deaths of two Syrians in Iraq.

The Marine Corps said the charges against Sgt. John Winnick II were dismissed without prejudice by the commanding general of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, meaning charges could be brought again at a later time.

Winnick, 24, was charged with two counts of voluntary manslaughter and failing to adhere to the military's rules of engagement by firing without reasonable certainty that his targets were hostile.

"In light of all of the circumstances, the commanding general has determined Sgt. Winnick's actions do not warrant referral of the charges to a military justice forum," said Marine Corps spokesman Mike Alvarez.

Alvarez said he didn't know why Lt. Gen. Samuel Helland left the door open for possible future prosecution.

Marine's lawyer surprised
An investigating officer had recommended that Winnick face a lesser charge of dereliction of duty for the June 17, 2007, shooting near Lake Tharthar in Iraq's western Anbar province.

"This is the first I'm hearing of it," Winnick's attorney, Gary Myers, said when asked for reaction to the dismissal.

"We are obviously pleased, and it was the correct result," he said.

Myers said Winnick was not immediately aware of the dismissal of charges but believed he would be "relieved" by the news.

"Now he can go back to being a Marine," he said.

During an Article 32 hearing, similar to a preliminary hearing, to determine whether there was sufficient evidence to send the Marine to court-martial, Winnick testified that he shot the men because he believed he was protecting his comrades.

Lake Tharthar was once Saddam Hussein's favorite fishing spot. The military believed the fairly isolated area was being used for training and recuperation by insurgents.

Sniper round, shotgun blast
The shooting began after a soda delivery truck stopped near a sniper team hideout on a busy road near the lake, where roadside bombs were a common threat.

During the hearing, Winnick's comrades testified that the Marine fired a fatal sniper round at a man who hopped out of the cab, removed a container or bag from a side compartment, and appeared to begin digging at the ground. Winnick then killed a second man with a shotgun after the team stormed out of its hiding place, they testified.

Winnick had faced up to 40 years in prison and dishonorable discharge if convicted on all counts, which also included aggravated assault against two truck passengers who were injured in the fight.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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