Rules of Engagement

dvd & transcript

Rules of Engagement

Arun Rath

ANNOUNCER: Tonight on FRONTLINE: The Haditha incident was called a massacre-

BARHAM SALIH, Deputy Prime Minister, Iraq: These crimes are heinous crimes, terrible acts. I would even call what happened in Haditha a war crime.

ANNOUNCER: Marines accused of going on a rampage, killing Iraqi civilians in cold blood.

Rep. JOHN MURTHA (D), Pennsylvania: [MSNBC 'Hardball,' May 17, 2006] They went into houses and killed children, women and children. Twenty-four people they killed.

Lance Cpl. JUSTIN SHARRATT, Kilo Co., 3/1 USMC, '04-'06: The news saying that there were 24 innocent civilians killed, I-it's not accurate at all. My case proves it.

ANNOUNCER: In just a matter of weeks, military courts will decide.

GARY MYERS, Attorney for Lance Cpl. Sharratt: Haditha will be the case that causes the military to come to grips with the rules for insurgency combat in a way that they never have had to before.

ANNOUNCER: Tonight, on FRONTLINE, what really happened in Haditha.

NARRATOR: The story begins two-and-a-half years ago in a town called Haditha in western Iraq near the Syrian border, on the banks of the Euphrates River. Before the war, it was known as a serene oasis, a popular vacation spot. But by the fall of 2005, nearly three years into the war, Haditha was war-torn, and Sunni insurgents were in complete control.

Maj. JEFFREY DINSMORE, Intelligence Officer, 3/1 USMC, '05-'06: Insurgent traffic of foreign fighters, fighters from Syria, from places outside of Iraq came through the Haditha triad and then down into points south and east like Fallujah, and on into Baghdad.

NARRATOR: Control of Haditha was vital in order to protect a massive dam that provided electricity to all of Anbar province. To retake Haditha, the Marine Corps sent in some of its most battle-hardened men, Kilo Company from the legendary Third Battalion, First Marines, the Thundering Third.

Maj. JEFFREY DINSMORE: 3/1's one of the most decorated battalions in the Marine Corps. Their history goes on back through Vietnam, Korea, World War II. All the major conflicts that this country's been in, 3/1's been involved in.

NARRATOR: Iraq was no different. Barely a year before they were sent to Haditha, Kilo Company had taken another city back from insurgents in the most intense urban combat Marines had faced since Vietnam, the second battle of Fallujah.

Lance Cpl. JUSTIN SHARRATT, Kilo Co., 3/1 USMC, '04-'06: Fallujah was like the OK Corral, the wild, wild West.

Sgt. TIM TARDIF, Kilo Co., 3/1 USMC: When I first joined the Marine Corps, that's what I thought I'd do as a Marine. Here's the enemy. They're right there. Go get 'em. Just going house to house.

NARRATOR: The Marines took control of Fallujah after four weeks of heavy, close-quarter combat. And Kilo Company had been in the thick of it all.

BING WEST, USMC (Ret.), Author, No True Glory: Kilo Company in Fallujah performed magnificently. They took heavy casualties, but they just kept going and going and going.

NARRATOR: Now many of the same men were primed to face a similar situation in Haditha.

Sgt. TIM TARDIF: All our intel reports and everything had initially said that this was going to be, you know, a full on, like, Fallujah-type style clearing the city and whatnot and-so we were all amped up.

NARRATOR: But they were surprised by what they found.

Sgt. TIM TARDIF: The night the battalion set up to go push through Haditha and start clearing it, all I heard was crickets.

Sgt. JOSEPH HAMAN, Kilo Co., 3/1 USMC, '04-'06: No one attacked us. No one did anything. We just-we found an abandoned school and then we set up there.

NARRATOR: The Marines renamed the school Sparta, and made it their base of operation.

Sergeant Frank Wuterich, who would later be at the center of the Haditha incident, was on his first deployment to Iraq. Justin Sharratt was one of his men.

Lance Cpl. JUSTIN SHARRATT: To us, Haditha seemed like a very shady town. I mean, nothing really major happened, but just the way the people reacted with us and the way-we tried to help them and we tried to do all this for them. And it just-they just seemed to not like us the whole entire time.

NARRATOR: The insurgents that Kilo Company expected to fight had seemingly disappeared.

Maj. JEFFREY DINSMORE: When 3/1 entered the city, insurgents largely fled. We received intelligence that they had gone to the south to regroup and plan. And we expected that, unlike Fallujah, where they went toe to toe with Marines, they were not willing to do that in Haditha.

NARRATOR: For the first three weeks, their deployment was eerily quiet. The Marines uncovered IEDs and weapons caches, but there was hardly an insurgent to be seen. That was about to change. Intelligence officers say they began to notice increased enemy activity in the town.

Maj. JEFFREY DINSMORE: The presence of foreign fighters in town was an immediate indicator that something was in the works and that planning for a major attack was under way.

NARRATOR: That major attack would occur on November 19, 2005, a day the men of Kilo Company will never forget. The day began, like so many other days in Kilo Company's deployment, with a routine mission. Sergeant Frank Wuterich would lead a convoy escorting a fresh unit of Iraqi soldiers to a nearby checkpoint and bringing food to fellow Marines.

Sgt. JOSEPH HAMAN: Staff Sergeant Wuterich and his squad resupplied us that morning, probably about 6:30 or 7:00 or so. I remember a couple of my friends were in the same squad, so I was talking to them. My squad was on post at the time. They were getting ready to come off post. It was early in the morning. Everybody was tired-just talking to them. And then-then they ended up leaving.

NARRATOR: Sergeant Wuterich was in charge of four vehicles and 11 Marines. Among them were Lance Corporals Miguel Terrazas, Justin Sharratt and Stephen Tatum, Corporals Sanick Dela Cruz and Hector Salinas, and Private First Class Humberto Mendoza. At about 7:00 AM, as they drove west, a terrific explosion rocked Wuterich's convoy.

Justin Sharratt was in the lead vehicle.

Lance Cpl. JUSTIN SHARRATT: I heard a large explosion from behind me. I turned around to, you know, assess what happened. I remember seeing the second Humvee and the third Humvee. I remember calling that out. And then I don't remember seeing the fourth one.

NARRATOR: The fourth Humvee had been destroyed. Two Marines were wounded, and the driver, Lance Corporal Miguel Terrazas, was literally torn in half by the explosion.

Lance Cpl. JUSTIN SHARRATT: He was one of the greatest Marines I've ever known, but you don't have time to mourn. You don't have time to do any of that.

NARRATOR: Wuterich and some of his men engaged a car they deemed hostile near the scene of the explosion, killing its five occupants. They then advanced on these nearby houses after identifying them as the source of incoming fire. What the Marines could not have known was that their actions that morning would come to haunt them. But at the time, the fight continued.

Nearby, the battalion's command directed an unmanned aerial vehicle, called Scan Eagle, to monitor the fighting. This is some of the actual footage.

Maj. JEFFREY DINSMORE: The UAV video feed that we obtained shortly after the attack took place showed the insurgents fleeing the scene, showed them getting into a car, showed them moving north out of the area.

NARRATOR: Major Jeffrey Dinsmore was the battalion's intelligence officer in Haditha that November day. This is the first time he's spoken to the press about what happened.

Maj. JEFFREY DINSMORE: Simultaneously, throughout the morning, other squads from Kilo Company were coming under IED attack, as well. They were either discovering IEDs or they were coming under small arms fire attack at various locations in the city. It became apparent that this was the major insurgent re-infiltration of Haditha that we had been expecting.

NARRATOR: Joseph Haman's squad was dispatched to clear an insurgent safe house and came under intense attack.

Sgt. JOSEPH HAMAN: November 19th was the main day in the deployment. That one sole day was pretty much how fighting was done in Fallujah. It was that intense. It was close combat the whole time, where you're inside a house and five, six feet away from someone that's shooting back at you. That was the day of days in Haditha.

NARRATOR: By the end of the day, at least nine Marines had been wounded and Lance Corporal Miguel Terrazas had been killed. The death toll for the Iraqis was far higher. The Marines estimated 12 insurgents had died. In addition, 15 civilians had been killed, including 4 women and 6 children.

To the Marines at the time, the civilian deaths seemed unremarkable in the overall violence of that day and their experiences over multiple deployments in Iraq.

Sgt. JOSEPH HAMAN: You knew that some people were killed. But I mean, compared to the time-the deployment before that, I mean, people-I mean, it just happens.

NARRATOR: The following day, the Marine Corps issued a press release so inaccurate it would eventually lead to allegations of a cover-up. It made no mention of women and children killed in their homes by Marines. Instead, it simply said, A U.S. Marine and 15 Iraqi civilians were killed yesterday from the blast of a roadside bomb.

JOSH WHITE, The Washington Post: When I first saw it, it seemed a little bit unusual. That's a pretty high number of civilian casualties for your typical IED, your improvised explosive device.

NARRATOR: Still, newspapers went with this version and the story quickly faded.

JOSH WHITE: It didn't get a whole lot of attention I think because there were a lot of things going on both in Iraq and around the world. And as time went on, it faded. Certainly, we weren't following that particular case very closely.

NARRATOR: And Kilo Company also moved on.

JOSH WHITE: I think the unit sort of forgot about what had happened. They saw reports, early reports, about that press release in publications that were overseas, and they dismissed them. They sort if said, Well, that isn't quite right. But I think they figured, you know, the media doesn't always get it right. Sometimes those press releases aren't exactly right, and they didn't see it as problematic.

NARRATOR: The Marines celebrated Thanksgiving in their Haditha camp and saluted their fallen comrade, Lance Corporal Miguel Terrazas, in a traditional memorial service.

Sgt. JOSEPH HAMAN: Lance Corporal Terrazas, he was just the ultimate fun-loving guy. He was one of those guys that was just-if you needed a quick laugh or someone to go talk to, he was always there. And whatever he'd do or say would just make you laugh.

NARRATOR: But the Iraqis had not finished grieving for their dead, as the Marines learned earlier in a meeting with the Haditha City Council.

KHALID SALIM RASAYEF, Attorney for Haditha Families: [through interpreter] About a week after the incident, the city council met with the U.S. side, Major Hyatt from civil affairs and the commander of Haditha, Colonel Chessani. Many demands were presented in this meeting, and among those demands was opening a formal investigation into the incident.

Maj. DANA HYATT, Civil Affairs, 3/1 USMC, '05-'06: They were upset about what had occurred. They were upset that the Marines killed innocent people that day, from what they were saying.

NARRATOR: In a formal complaint, the city council referred to the incident as a crime of war and called the killings in the houses and at the white car executions. But the Marine command gave little credence to these allegations. They strongly suspected that the city council was backed by terrorists.

Maj. JEFFREY DINSMORE, Intelligence Officer, 3/1 USMC, '05-'06: The city council demonstrated through actions, and through information that we had received from various sources, that their allegiances largely lied-not all of them, but largely lied with the insurgency.

NARRATOR: No investigation was launched at that time, and the Marines thought that they had put the incident behind them.

Maj. DANA HYATT: It became more of a meeting of what can both sides do to-you know, This incident occurred. We'll deal with it the best that we can. And from here on out, though, what can we both do to prevent these incidents from happening in the future?

NARRATOR: But not everyone in Haditha would be satisfied. In fact, this video of the aftermath of the house clearings by Wuterich and his men was filmed by an Iraqi determined to get the story out to the rest of the world.

ABDUL RAHMAN AL MASHHADANI, Hammurabi Human Rights Org.: [through interpreter] A member of our organization is from Haditha, and by chance during the incident, he was visiting his family there, so he was able to film some of the scenes.

NARRATOR: Abdul Rahman al Mashhadani is the co-founder of the Hammurabi Human Rights Organization based in Baghdad.

ABDUL RAHMAN AL MASHHADANI: [through interpreter] When I first watched the film, I couldn't finish it because it was a horrible tragedy, the mutilation of the bodies, the brutal way of killing.

NARRATOR: Al Mashhadani says they tried to get the tape into the hands of the Arab media, but no one would pay attention. Finally, he showed it to TIME magazine's Baghdad Correspondent, Tim McGirk.

TIM McGIRK, TIME Baghdad Correspondent, '05-'06: The video was horrifying. And I said, Well, who did this? This is terrible. I sort of figured it was, you know, fighting, the usual sort of butchery that goes on between Sunnis and Shias. And they said, No, it was the U.S. Marines based in Haditha that carried this out.

I was stunned and I didn't believe it. So the next thing I did is, I just did a simple Google search about the events of November 19th.

NARRATOR: McGirk found the Marine press release dated November 20th saying that the civilians had been killed by a roadside bomb.

TIM McGIRK: So I thought back and I remembered several things. I remembered, first of all, the bodies of the people, the women and children, they were in their pajamas. And Iraq, it's a very traditional society. People don't go wandering around on the streets in their pajamas to get hit by an IED.

NARRATOR: There were also purported eyewitnesses on the videotape. Their stories, too, were completely at odds with the Marines' press release.

[Hammurabi Human Rights Organization video]

FAMILY MEMBER: [subtitles] We opened the door. My father was dead. We sat there. An American came in and shot at us. I pretended to be dead.

WITNESS: [subtitles] They opened the door and threw in a grenade. Then they went in. And there were women and children inside. And they eliminated the family. And these children were only 2 or 2 years old.

NARRATOR: McGirk wondered if commanders might be trying to conceal deliberate killings of civilians by the Marines. He wrote to the local Marine press officer.

TIM McGIRK: [reading] Why were the Marines unable or unwilling to distinguish women and children in daylight at close quarters from potential terrorists? Is there any investigation ongoing into these civilian deaths? And if so, have any Marines been formally charged?

NARRATOR: The officer who wrote back, Jeffrey Pool, was incredulous: To be honest, I can't believe you're buying any of this. There is no investigation. This falls into the same category of Al Qaeda in Iraq propaganda.

Maj. JEFFREY DINSMORE: We know that the Hammurabi video is insurgent propaganda because intelligence information received almost immediately after the events of November 19th indicated that the video had been recorded by an insurgent propagandist.

NARRATOR: But McGirk thought he had good reason to believe the claims on the tape.

TIM McGIRK: I had worked with the Hammurabi people before on other stories, and I think that it's wrong to smear them as pro-insurgent. These are people who are carrying out human rights work in Iraq.

NARRATOR: The Marines offered to transport McGirk to Haditha to look into their side of the story. McGirk declined, saying his editor felt it was too dangerous to go into Haditha. But his questioning produced results.

Maj. JEFFREY DINSMORE: There was an indication that-that because of his inquiries, the highest echelons of command were concerned about the events of November 19th.

NARRATOR: Within a month a full-scale investigation was under way. As part of the Navy, the Marine Corps falls under the jurisdiction of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. The NCIS committed more than 60 agents to the case.

THOMAS BETRO, Director, NCIS: To dedicate 65 or so agents full-time to one investigation is probably-if-one of, if not the largest, effort we've put forth in an investigation in history since I've been on, which is about 25 years.

NARRATOR: But some in the Iraqi government weren't interested in the number of agents, they wanted to play a central role in the investigation.

WIJDAN MIKHAIL SALIM, Human Rights Minister, Iraq: [through interpreter] We presented a complete file to the American side about what happened in Haditha. Less than a week later, the Americans told us that we could not be a part of the investigation but they would keep us updated.

NARRATOR: Just as the NCIS started its investigation, TIME published Tim McGirk's story about the incident. But it ran on page 34 and got little play in the media.

JOSH WHITE: Because it was in Iraq, because it was in the war zone, it didn't get a whole lot of bounce, as they say in journalism. There weren't a whole lot of follow-ups to the TIME magazine story initially.

NARRATOR: Just a few months later, America-and the world-did take notice when Congressman John Murtha, a staunch opponent of the war, citing unnamed military sources, made a shocking charge during a press conference.

Rep. JOHN MURTHA (D), Pennsylvania: [May 17, 2006] It's much worse than reported in TIME magazine. There was no-there was no firefight. There was no IED that killed these innocent people. Our troops overreacted because of the pressure on them, and they killed innocent civilians in cold blood.

NARRATOR: To the Kilo Company Marines who were listening, Murtha's charges were outrageous.

Sgt. JOSEPH HAMAN: Hearing the speech from Murtha saying that they just went out and-with all the pressure on them, that they just went out and killed all these people, and that there was no IED and there was no firefight that day-I mean, it's just-it's a slap in the face. It's-it's-I mean, it disgusts you when-one-a guy that was loved by everybody in the whole company, almost the whole battalion, was killed by an IED that day. And then my own squad got into a firefight, which about 9 out of 12 people got injured that day from grenades or from being shot at, I mean, and saying that there was no firefight, it's just-I mean, it's-I mean, it's a straight slap in the face.

Rep. JOHN MURTHA: [CNN, May 30, 2006] They killed the people in the taxi. There was no firing at all. And this comes from-

NARRATOR: For the next two weeks, Murtha made the media rounds.

JOSH WHITE: He made the point, initially, to show the stress that U.S. troops were under, over in Iraq. And he was using it more as a pitch to bring U.S. troops home.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, Host, MSNBC Hardball: [May 17, 2006] Draw us a picture of what happened at Haditha.

Rep. JOHN MURTHA: Well, I'll tell you exactly what happened. One Marine was killed and the Marines just said, We're going to take care of it. They don't know who the enemy is. The pressure was too much on them.

JOSH WHITE: His comments certainly got our attention at The Washington Post. So when you have a member of Congress saying-and a Marine himself, I mean, someone who has served in the military previously, coming out and calling an event, cold-blooded murder, I think that was the point where people really started looking at this case.

NARRATOR: TIME magazine revisited the story in June 2006, this time placing it on the front cover.

TIM McGIRK: It was put on the front cover because by then, it had turned into a political story. Murtha had come out with his statements about it. And I think it also came at a time when there was an increasing malaise in the way the war was being carried out and why we weren't winning. And following on the heels of Abu Ghraib, this was one example in which the Americans were going about it wrong. How can you win the hearts and minds of the people when, suddenly, there's an incident in which 24 civilians die?

NEWSCASTER: Some are comparing the Haditha killings to the Vietnam massacre at My Lai.

NARRATOR: Haditha led the news for weeks and soon became synonymous with other outrages in the Iraq War, like Abu Ghraib.

BING WEST, USMC (Ret.), Author, No True Glory: Haditha, in my judgment, is a metaphor for how the press unconsciously, being in opposition to a war, will take an incident, and simply by reiterating it and reiterating it and reiterating it, build it into something that it wasn't.

[ The media coverage of Haditha]

Rep. JOHN MURTHA: [CNN, May 30, 2006] We're supposed to be fighting this war for democracy, and yet something like this happens that sets us back. It's as bad as Abu Ghraib, if not worse.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: [June 1, 2006] Obviously, the allegations are very troubling for me.

NARRATOR: As political pressure mounted that summer, the NCIS issued its internal report.

JOSH WHITE: The NCIS report, which was thousands of pages long, came back with recommendations for the command that there were crimes committed.

NARRATOR: At the same time, an independent Army investigation looked into the actions of senior officers.

JOSH WHITE: What they found was that there was a pervasive feeling from the unit on the ground all the way up to the top levels of the Marine Corps leadership in Iraq that Iraqi lives were not as important as the lives of Marines, that the deaths of innocent civilians are an unfortunate byproduct of war.

NARRATOR: And the press release at the center of the controversy was also scrutinized. It had been written by Marine Captain Jeffrey Pool, who said he'd just assumed any civilians who had died had been killed by insurgents. The report from the field that day had not specified who had shot the civilians.

Pool told investigators, It was all part of the attack. And that was what we were showing, 15 Iraqi civilians killed by an insurgent attack.

The Army investigation also found that, There was a tendency at all levels of command to view civilian casualties, even in significant numbers, as relatively routine.

JOSH WHITE: The report was extremely critical of people as high as-at the two-star general level, saying that they should have noticed that something was amiss. They should have asked questions. They should have started an investigation right away.

[ Read the report]

Col. STEWART NAVARRE, U.S. Marine Corps: [Press conference, December 21, 2006] Based on the findings of the investigations, various charges have been preferred against four Marines relating to the deaths of the Iraqi civilians on 19 November, 2005. Also, charges have been preferred against four Marines for failure to properly report and/or investigate the deaths of the Iraqi civilians.

NARRATOR: Finally, in December 2006, the Marines were officially charged, making the incident one of the most significant criminal cases since the start of the Iraq War. Facing multiple charges of unpremeditated murder for the killings of the Iraqi civilians were Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich, Sergeant Sanick Dela Cruz, Lance Corporal Justin Sharratt and Lance Corporal Stephen Tatum.

Two other Marines involved in the killings that day, Lance Corporal Humberto Mendoza and Corporal Hector Salinas, were not charged. Both eventually were granted immunity in exchange for their testimony.

And the Commander of the entire Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Chessani, was charged for failing to report the incident and for not thoroughly investigating the events of November 19th. Three officers under Chessani were also charged with offenses related to the aftermath of the incident.

The military court proceedings are under way at Kilo's home base, Camp Pendleton in Southern California. The process began in the Spring of 2007 with preliminary hearings to determine whether any of the Marines would face court-martial.

After more than a year of having their stories played out in the media, the accused Marines told their version of events to an investigating officer. No recordings were allowed in the courtroom, so here, read by actors, are excerpts of the unsworn statements of Wuterich and Tatum.

Staff Sgt. FRANK WUTERICH: [unsworn statement] Saturday, November 19, 2005, started off as a normal day for 1st Squad 3rd Platoon Kilo Company in Haditha, Iraq. Although the mission was something we had conducted and accomplished dozens of times before, today would be extraordinarily different. The day was chilly and the sky was clear. The city was ominously quiet. I changed the normal route of north on River Road and west on Haditha Road. This is one decision I will always regret.

An explosion louder than anything I have ever heard rocked the entire convoy. I remained calm. I continued to drive west as my A driver started to scream, The fourth vehicle got hit! I made my way back to the other side of Chestnut and stopped my Humvee.

NARRATOR: Wuterich's squad called for back-up and began to search for the triggerman.

Staff Sgt. FRANK WUTERICH: [unsworn statement] The first thing I noticed outside my vehicle was a white four-door sedan to the southwest. Corporal Dela Cruz was shouting in broken Arabic and using expletives to the military-aged males who occupied the white car. His weapon was at the ready, as it should have been.

They were not complying, and in fact, were starting to run in the opposite direction. I took a knee in the road and fired. Engaging was the only choice. The threat had to be neutralized.

NARRATOR: Wuterich said he and Corporal Salinas then heard small arms fire from a house nearby, and at the order of a superior who had just arrived on the scene, he took Corporal Salinas, along with Lance Corporal Tatum and Private First Class Mendoza, to clear that house.

Staff Sgt. FRANK WUTERICH: [unsworn statement] I advised the team something like, Shoot first and ask questions later, or, Don't hesitate to shoot. I can't remember my exact words, but I wanted them to understand that hesitation to shoot would only result in the four of us being killed.

NARRATOR: For purposes of the hearing, this house was referred to as House One.

It was the first time Wuterich had ever been under fire. He had never cleared a house in combat. But two of his men were veterans of Fallujah, Lance Corporals Justin Sharratt and Stephen Tatum.

Like Wuterich, Tatum presented his story of what happened that day.

Lance Cpl. STEPHEN TATUM: [unsworn statement] I had been told by my squad leader to treat the house as hostile. Before even entering the house, shots had already been fired. Upon entering the house, I heard an AK-47 racking.

NARRATOR: Tatum said he threw a grenade into the room that he thought the sound was coming from.

Lance Cpl. STEPHEN TATUM: [unsworn statement] Grenade just went off. Dust was in the air. Smoke was in the air. Couldn't really make out much more than targets.

NARRATOR: By the time they cleared the first house, three men, two women and a child were dead.

Next, Wuterich said he heard one of his Marines shout, There's a runner, and he ordered his men to the next house, House 2, the only place he said the runner could have gone.

Staff Sgt. FRANK WUTERICH: [unsworn statement] Again, we used grenades and cleared the rooms by fire.

Lance Cpl. STEPHEN TATUM: [unsworn statement] It was dark. Couldn't really see a whole lot. I never took more than two or three steps in either one of the rooms. The engagements maybe lasted five, six seconds.

NARRATOR: Just seconds, but five more children and two more women were dead.

Wuterich said that while he cleared Houses 1 and 2 alongside his men, he doesn't remember firing his weapon. But he maintained that his team, Tatum and two others, had acted appropriately, despite what happened.

Lance Cpl. STEPHEN TATUM: [unsworn statement] I am not comfortable with the fact that women and children died that day. I know I might have had a part in it. I don't know if my rounds impacted anybody. That is a burden I will have to bear.

NARRATOR: The Marines searched many houses that day. About 10:30 AM, more than three hours after the IED explosion, Sharratt said they went to investigate suspicious activity near this house, later referred to as House 3.

Lance Cpl. JUSTIN SHARRATT: The only thing that were there were women and children, which to us, you know, that was kind of weird. We asked them in Arabic, you know, if they had any weapons, you know, where the-the men at.

NARRATOR: The Marines said they were told the men were in this house, now referred to as House 4.

Lance Cpl. JUSTIN SHARRATT: There was a room in front of me with the door open, and I saw a Iraqi with a AK-47 pointed at me. So I raised up my squad automatic weapon. And when I pulled the trigger, the weapon jammed. So I pulled back and took cover behind a-behind the wall. I pulled out the nine-millimeter pistol that I was carrying at the time. I fired a shot and killed him. And to the left, there were three Iraqi males, and the first one had an AK-47. So I just open fired on all three of those males until I ran out of bullets. Then Staff Sergeant Wuterich came in and finished the job.

[ More of Sharratt's interview]

NARRATOR: The four men killed by Wuterich and Sharratt were all brothers, members of the Ahmed family.

Sharratt's case was the first to be considered by the investigating officer. He was charged with three counts of unpremeditated murder for the killings in House 4. The central question was whether his actions were appropriate under the Rules of Engagement, the ROE, the conditions under which U.S. forces are allowed to use deadly force.

GARY MYERS, Attorney for Lance Cpl. Sharratt: The rules of engagement have one fundamental underpinning, and that is that every soldier or Marine has the right to self-defense. That's the first and foremost element of the rules of engagement. And every Marine and soldier can tell you that. They have a little card and they can tell you what the card says.

[ Examine the ROE card]

NARRATOR: Gary Myers, Justin Sharratt's attorney, has been practicing military law since arguing the My Lai case during the Vietnam war. He contended Sharratt's actions were justified under the rules of engagement because Sharratt said he acted in self-defense.

GARY MYERS: He saw an AK-47 being raised at him and he reacted instantly and with precision, as he is trained to do.

NARRATOR: But Iraqi witnesses from House 3 told a very different story, a story of deliberate execution-style killings. The prosecution said the Iraqi witnesses declined to testify in person, but FRONTLINE has obtained some of this testimony-videotaped in Iraq-which the prosecution used to build its case against Sharratt.

The witnesses swore the Marines took everyone out of Houses 3 and 4, forced the men to give up their weapons, separated them from the women and children at gunpoint and led them into House 4. After the Marines left, the witnesses, said they found their male relatives grouped together dead.

KHALID JAMAL AIAD AHMED: [subtitles] My Uncle Marwan, they put him in the closet. When the door was opened, he was seated like this, dead.

NARRATOR: The prosecution declined FRONTLINE's request for an interview, as they have been barred from making statements outside of the courtroom. But at the hearing, they laid out their case against Sharratt-that what the witnesses described was, in fact, a cold-blooded execution, not an active fight, as Sharratt had claimed.

But forensic evidence introduced by the defense cast doubt on the Iraqi witness accounts.

GARY MYERS: The scene of the death of these four men was completely inconsistent with an execution. The location of rounds in the walls and the windows indicated a dynamic situation. These men were moving, and therefore, the notion of execution-style shooting simply evaporated. When you just looked at the forensics of the room, it could not have happened that way.

NARRATOR: Despite the forensic evidence, the prosecution recommended that Sharratt's case proceed to a court-martial.

The next hearings addressed the difficult questions surrounding the shootings earlier in the day, immediately following the IED explosion. Staff Sergeant Wuterich and Sergeant Dela Cruz were charged with murdering the five Iraqi men who exited the white car. They said the men were running away.

NEAL PUCKETT, Attorney for Staff Sgt. Wuterich: Under the rules of engagement that existed on 19 November of 2005, military-age males who are fleeing the scene of an attack, an IED attack, were considered insurgents, or supporters of insurgents, and could be engaged as threats.

NARRATOR: But Iraqi soldiers on the scene had told investigators that the Marines had lined up the men and shot them while they were kneeling. In the hearing, however, the NCIS's own forensics expert dismissed this idea, saying the evidence showed the Iraqi men could not have been lined up in that way.

But by this time, the prosecution had a new weapon. Before the hearings began, Sergeant Dela Cruz changed his story after reaching a deal to testify