Anger in Iraq After Plea Bargain Over 2005 Massacre
By MICHAEL S. SCHMIDT
January 24, 2012
BAGHDAD — Iraqis were outraged Tuesday to learn that the Marine considered the ringleader of a 2005 massacre that left 24 of their countrymen dead in 2005 had pleaded guilty Monday to a reduced charge and faced a maximum of three months in jail and a reduction in rank.
"That soldier would be sent to prison for more than three months if he had thrown trash on the streets in America," said Khalid Salman, 45, whose cousin was killed by the Marines in the massacre, which occurred in the town of Haditha in November 2005. "This is not new and it’s not new for the American courts that already did little about Abu Ghraib and other crimes in Iraq."
For the past nine years, Iraqis have found themselves looking to the American legal system to provide justice for what they believe were war crimes committed by Americans, and most of the time, many say, they have been disappointed. This time was no exception.
The Marine, Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, 31, pleaded guilty in a military court in California to dereliction of duty, telling the judge that he regretted ordering his men to "shoot first, ask questions later," according to news agency reports. He had faced up to 152 years in prison if convicted on the charges of manslaughter and assault on which he stood accused.
Mr. Salman vowed not to let the matter rest. "We won’t be silent," he said. "We will resume the case through all international courts, and we will appeal the American resolution. Injustice has won this round, but there are many more rounds left."
Assim Omar al-Hadithi, 40, a relative of another victim, said that such a light sentence "shows the lies of the Americans, whether they are judges or members of the military."
He continued: "All the world knew that the American soldiers committed crimes in Iraq. We were extensively surprised when we heard the news, and it has made our minds even worse. It is no consolation for the victims’ families."
The shadows cast by the Haditha massacre, the abuse of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison and the killing of civilians by contractors for Blackwater at a square in Baghdad helped turn Iraqi public opinion against the American presence. An agreement to keep American troops here past 2011 collapsed when Iraqi officials would not agree to extend their immunity from Iraqi prosecution.
Since the American troops left last month, Iraq has been engulfed in a political crisis, and the Iraqi military has struggled to maintain security as insurgents have conducted a string of devastating attacks.
A number of Americans in high-profile cases have received what many Iraqis regarded as token sentences. In August, the supposed ringleader in the Abu Ghraib abuses, Pvt. Charles A. Graner Jr., was released early from prison because of good behavior. He had been sentenced to 10 years but served just 6 1/2.
In 2009 charges were dropped against four American military contractors in the killings of the 17 civilians at the square in Baghdad. While a federal court ruling in Washington reopened manslaughter charges against the four, many Iraqis continue to believe that the contractors will never be punished.
Iraqis received Tuesday’s plea deal with the same cynicism and anger. "I am not satisfied with the court decision against those killers — they need to be tortured and executed because they killed innocent people," said Tariq Abas al-Najar, 43, a taxi driver in Basra. "If Marines killed a sheep in Europe, the judge would punish them much harsher than for the killing of those innocent Iraqis."
Omar al-Jawoshy contributed reporting from Baghdad, and Iraqi employees of The New York Times from Baghdad and Anbar Province.