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Last defendant in Iraq killings ready for trial

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[April 01, 2010]  CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. (AP) -- Marine Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich entered military court thinking charges against him in a case involving the deaths of 24 Iraqis - some children - would be dismissed. He left resigned to being court-martialed in the biggest criminal case against U.S. troops to arise from the Iraq war.

"I'm actually happy to see that there is a trial date and that this will be over soon," he told reporters. "At least this is the beginning of the end."

A military judge, Lt. Col. David Jones, on Friday refused to dismiss charges against the former squad leader, saying defense attorneys failed to show that two generals who oversaw the case were influenced by a top aide who was disqualified under military policy from giving advice because he had investigated the killings on a previous assignment.

Wuterich, 30, is one of eight Marines initially charged with murder or failure to investigate the killings that occurred after a roadside bombing that killed a Marine. Six have had charges dropped or dismissed, and one was acquitted.

Wuterich's trial is scheduled for Sept. 13 on reduced charges of voluntary manslaughter in nine of the 24 deaths and other crimes in the November 2005 shootings in the town of Haditha.

Wuterich, of Meriden, Conn., said it's been a "tough five years." He is doing administrative work at 1st Marine Division headquarters at Camp Pendleton while toward a certificate as a computer technician at Saddleback Community College in Orange County and coaching soccer.

"I try to do things to keep my mind off the case," he said.

Wuterich said he had "mixed feelings" that all the other defendants were exonerated.

"In part, I'm happy for them, but it's tough being the last guy going through this," he said.

At his preliminary hearing, Wuterich said he regretted the loss of civilian lives but believed he was operating within military combat rules when he ordered his men to attack. He declined to discuss the killings with reporters Friday.

An ending of the case would likely have met outcry in Iraq, where many see a lack of accountability for the actions of U.S. troops through the seven years of war.

Abdul-Rahman Najim al-Mashhadani, who heads the Baghdad-based Hammourabi NGO human rights organization, welcomed the ruling.

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"It is a very important case and we feel happy that attention will be paid to a case dealing with human rights," he said. "This case is regarded as a success for us."

Wuterich and a squad member were accused of shooting five men by a car at the scene. Investigators say Wuterich then ordered his men to clear several houses with grenades and gunfire.

A full investigation didn't begin until a Time magazine reporter inquired about the deaths in January 2006, two months later.

Gen. James Mattis, who brought charges, acknowledges that his aide, Col. John Ewers, was in the room when allegations of wartime abuse were discussed but denies ever getting advice from him on the Haditha case.

The judge said Friday there was no suggestion that Ewers' presence influenced the generals or stifled junior attorneys who were present. He said he was convinced Mattis and his successor, Gen. Samuel Helland, had done extensive independent research.

"It is reassuring to know that the generals really did their homework ... and didn't merely act as a rubber stamp," Jones said.


Associated Press Writers Bushra Juhi and Rebecca Santana in Baghdad contributed to this report.

[Associated Press; By ELLIOT SPAGAT]

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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