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Marines Face Charges for Deaths of Iraqi Civilians

Eight Marines have been charged in the massacre of 24 Iraqi civilians in the town of Haditha last year. Prosecutors claim the Marines went on a killing spree in retaliation for an attack that killed a comrade; the defense says the threat was real.

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  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    It's the largest criminal case to come out of the Iraq war, from the November 2005 killing of 24 Iraqi civilians in the town of Haditha in western Iraq. They died after a roadside bomb attack killed a Marine on patrol.

    Four Marine enlisted men were charged today with unpremeditated murder, and four officers with dereliction of duty. For the latest developments, we're joined by Washington Post reporter Josh White.

    Josh, give us first a brief reminder of what's now thought to have happened that day in Haditha.

  • JOSH WHITE, Washington Post:

    Sure. What the Marine Corps has alleged at this point is that a squad of Marines that were traveling in a convoy of Humvees through the town of Haditha was hit by a roadside bomb, one of these very now common improvised explosive devices in a road.

    One Marine was killed in that attack, and then the rest of the Marines in the squad believed they were taking fire from nearby homes, and then went into those homes house to house, and ended up killing as many as 24 civilians.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So today four Marines were charged with unpremeditated murder. Now, what does that mean in military law?

  • JOSH WHITE:

    Yes, that's actually a very important distinction to make. If they had been charged with premeditated murder, it would have shown that the Marine Corps believed that they had planned this attack, that they meant to go out and kill Iraqi civilians, that it was a rampage.

    By charging unpremeditated murder, what they've done is they've charged the highest level just below that.

    They've left open the ability to charge, for example, involuntary manslaughter or negligent homicide, which means that they should have known that the consequences of their actions would lead to innocent civilians being killed and that they acted with wanton disregard for the law. They're essentially alleging that the Marines should have known better, should have taken more care with what they did that day.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And what's their defense? What are their attorneys saying?

  • JOSH WHITE:

    The defense attorneys are saying that, essentially, these Marines are doing what they were trained to do: They were fighting in combat in Iraq.

    They had taken fire. They were responding to an ambush. They went into these houses because they believed they were threatening, and they essentially went and tried to take out an enemy, and that unfortunately, in this case, they took out a number of innocent civilians, as well.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And the potential penalties that these enlisted men face?

  • JOSH WHITE:

    Sure, if they're convicted of unpremeditated murder, each one of these enlisted Marines faces as much as life in prison. The death penalty is not on the table here.