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Plea Deal in Haditha Killings Opens New Wounds in Iraq

January 24, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT

GWEN IFILL: Now: a surprising outcome to a case that shook Iraq and the United States, the gunning down of 24 civilians in Haditha, Iraq, in 2005.

Late today, a military judge recommended 90 days confinement and reduction in rank to the remaining Marine charged. But because of a pretrial agreement, he will serve no time.

Margaret Warner has the story.

MARGARET WARNER: It was one of the worst attacks on civilians by U.S. troops of the entire Iraq war. Blood-soaked rooms, scattered bullet casings, and piles of bodies littered the scene in Haditha 140 miles northwest of Baghdad in November 2005.

Survivors accused U.S. Marines of carrying out a massacre.

SAFA YOUNIS, Iraq (through translator): The Americans knocked at the door. My father went to open it. They shot him dead from behind the door and then they shot him again after they opened the door. Then comes one American soldier and shot at us all. I pretended to be dead.

MARGARET WARNER: It had begun with a roadside bomb that killed Marine Lance Corporal Miguel Terrazas. His death was noted on the NewsHour’s Honor Roll.

Military investigators concluded his squad went on a rampage of revenge, killing 24 Iraqi civilians, including three women and seven children. Four enlisted Marines were charged with manslaughter and other crimes. Four officers were charged with a cover-up.

Defense lawyers argued the Marines believed they were in hostile territory and acted properly. Ultimately, charges were dropped against six of them and a seventh was acquitted. Yesterday, squad leader Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich’s court-martial was cut short. He pled guilty to dereliction of duty, admitting he had given orders to shoot first and ask questions later.

Prosecutors dropped the more serious charges of involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault. Conviction on those could have sent him to prison for life.

The plea deal opened old wounds in Haditha today. This man survived the attack, but his bullet scar is still visible.

AWIS FAHMI HUSSEIN, Iraq (through translator): I was expecting that the American judiciary would sentence this person to life in prison and that he would appear and confess in front of the whole world that he committed this crime, so that America could show itself as democratic and fair.

MARGARET WARNER: Wuterich could also face a separate discharge hearing.

At his sentencing hearing today, Wuterich expressed sorrow to the victims and said he hadn’t meant for his men to kill innocent civilians.