WASHINGTON - The lawyer for a sergeant who led a squad of Marines during an incident that left civilians dead in Haditha, Iraq, says his client insists his unit was following military rules of engagement, did not intentionally target any civilians and did not try to cover up what it had done.
No one has yet been charged in the Haditha case, which centers on allegations that a small number of Marines from the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment killed 24 Iraqi civilians - included unarmed women and children - on Nov. 19 after a roadside bomb in the town killed one of their fellow Marines.
Neal A. Puckett told The Washington Post in a story for Sunday's editions that Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich, 26, told him several civilians were killed when his squad pursued insurgents firing at them from inside a house after the bombing.
He quoted the sergeant as describing to him a house-to-house hunt that went wrong in the midst of a confusing battlefield, but denying any vengeful massacre.
"It will forever be his position that everything they did that day was following their rules of engagement and to protect the lives of Marines," Puckett told the newspaper. "He's really upset that people believe that he and his Marines are even capable of intentionally killing innocent civilians."
The Post characterized Wuterich's version of what happened at Haditha as the first public account from a Marine who was on the ground when the shootings occurred, which it said has led to an investigation looking into possible murder charges against a half dozen Marines.
A separate investigation is examining whether Marines tried to cover up the shootings and whether commanders were negligent in failing to investigate the deaths when they were reported to them.
Haditha residents have said innocent civilians were executed, including some who begged for their lives before being shot.
But Puckett said Wuterich told him in initial interviews over nearly 12 hours last week that the shootings were the unfortunate result of a sweep for enemies in a firefight.
The Post said lawyers for two other Marines involved in the incident say Wuterich's account is consistent with what their clients have told them.
Gary Myers, an attorney for a Marine who was with Wuterich that day but not further identified, told the Post the Marines followed standard procedures when clearing houses, using fragmentation grenades and gunshots to respond to a perceived threat.
"I can confirm that that version of events is consistent with our position on this case," Myers told the Post. "What this case comes down to is: What were the rules of engagement, and were they followed?"
Kevin B. McDermott, who is representing Capt. Lucas M. McConnell, the company commander who was relieved of duty after the incident, told the Post that Wuterich and other Marines informed McConnell on the day of the incident that at least 15 civilians were killed by "a mixture of small-arms fire and shrapnel as result of grenades" after the Marines responded to an attack from a house.
The lawyer told the paper McConnell told him that he had reported the high number of civilian deaths to his superiors that afternoon and that within a few days the battalion's intelligence chief gave a PowerPoint presentation to higher-up Marine commanders.
"Everywhere up the chain, they had ample access to this thing," McDermott said.
Puckett gave this account to the Post, based on his interview with Wuterich:
Immediately after the roadside bomb, Marines noticed a car full of "military-aged men" near the bomb site who ran when ordered to stop. Marines opened fire, killing four or five men.
The unit subsequently came under fire and a corporal identified the shots as coming from a specific house. A four-man team, including Wuterich, kicked in the door and found a series of empty rooms before hearing people behind one door. They kicked that one in, tossed a fragmentation grenade into the room and one Marine fired a series of rounds through dust and smoke, killing several people.
Even though they realized they had killed men, women and children, they saw a back door ajar and believed insurgents had moved to a second house. The Marines moved to the second house, kicking in the door, killing one man inside and then using another grenade and more gunfire to clear another room full of people.
Still having not found the insurgents, Wuterich told his team to stop and headed back to reassess the situation with his platoon leader, realizing that a number of civilians had just been killed.