Eight Marines were charged Thursday in the killings of 24 Iraqi civilians in the town of Haditha last year.
Four Marines were charged with murder in the biggest U.S. criminal case involving civilian deaths to arise from the war in Iraq.
The other four charged were officers who were not there but were accused of failures in investigating and reporting the deaths, the Marine Corps said.
A squad leader was charged with murdering 12 people and ordering other Marines to murder six people in the hours after a roadside bomb killed one Marine and injured two others.
The squad leader, Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, 26, was charged with unpremeditated murder of 18 Iraqi civilians, including six people inside a house members of his squad cleared with deadly force. Wuterich also was charged with one count each of making a false official statement and soliciting another sergeant to make false official statements.
Sgt. Sanick P. Dela Cruz was accused of the unpremeditated murders of five people and making a false official statement with intent to deceive.
Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt was accused of the unpremeditated murder of three Iraqis.
Lance Cpl. Stephen Tatum charged with the unpremeditated murders of two Iraqis, negligent homicide of four Iraqi civilians and a charge of assault upon two Iraqis.
The highest ranking defendant, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani, was accused of failing to obey an order or regulation, encompassing dereliction of duty.
The other officers charged were 1st Lt. Andrew Grayson, Capt. Lucas McConnell and Capt. Randy Stone.
The Marines all belonged to Kilo Company of the Camp Pendleton-based 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines Regiment, and have been under investigation since March for the deaths.
Nov. 19, 2005
The Iraqi civilians were killed in the hours following a roadside bomb that rocked a Marine patrol on the morning of Nov. 19, 2005. The blast killed one Marine and injured two others.
In the aftermath, five Iraqi men were shot as they approached in a taxi and others — including women and children — died as Marines went house to house in the area, clearing homes with grenades and gunfire.
Defense attorneys have said their clients were doing what they had been trained to do: responding to a perceived threat with legitimate force. The Marines remained in combat for months after the killings.
A criminal probe of the Haditha incident was launched after Time magazine reported in March, citing survivor accounts and human rights groups, that innocent people were killed.
More civilians died than first reported
The Marine Corps initially reported that 15 Iraqis died in a roadside bomb blast, and Marines killed eight insurgents in an ensuing fire fight. That account was widely discredited and later reports put the number of dead Iraqis at 24.
The case sparked an international outcry when it was first reported. It is one of several cases of alleged U.S. misconduct to have emerged from the Iraq war and the second time in six months that Pendleton officials have held a press conference to say they are charging their own in allegedly unlawful killings.
Rep. John Murtha, a frequent and outspoken critic of the war, issued a written statement on the charges from the Haditha incident:
"From the very start I said that the pressure on these young people is tremendous, but that doesn't excuse what happened,” Murtha's statement read. “I spoke out and talked about the necessity for a timely and complete investigation. This investigation has lead to the preferring of court martial charges against certain individuals and now the judicial process will move forward. I have no further comment."
Chain of command problems?
A parallel military investigation examined whether officers in the Marines’ chain of command tried to cover up the events. Results of that probe have not been made public.
As word that charges in the case were imminent, some Iraqis said Thursday that American troops should face justice in Iraq.
“The trial they are talking about is fake. The American troops should be brought here, in front of an Iraqi court,” Naji al-Ani, a 36-year-old laborer, said by telephone from Haditha. “They committed a horrible crime against innocents.”
Other residents of Haditha agreed, saying they believed the servicemen were guilty and should face the death penalty.
“Are they terrorists or are they fighting terrorism?” said Jamal al-Obaidi, a 40-year-old teacher. “The trial is not fair because it is taking place in America. Executing them is the minimum penalty.”
A spokesman for the Iraqi Defense Ministry said the Iraqi government supports the decision of the U.S. military to prosecute the troops.