CAMP PENDLETON, California - The US military charged four Marines on Thursday with murder and four others on related charges in the November 2005 deaths of 24 unarmed civilians in Haditha, Iraq.
The killings of the men, women and children is one of the most serious allegations of misconduct against civilians by US troops in Iraq. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has called the Haditha killings a "terrible crime."
Along with the widely publicised abuses of Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison, the killings have damaged US prestige and led to international condemnation.
In announcing the charges, Marine Col. Stewart Navarre said the first press release on the incident, issued the day after the killings, wrongly said that 15 Iraqi civilians were killed by a planted bomb and that Marines and Iraqi army soldiers killed eight insurgents in a subsequent firefight.
"We now know with certainty ... that none of the civilians were killed by the IED (improvised explosive device) explosion," Navarre said.
Marine Corps squad leader Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, whose lawyer said was charged with 13 counts of murder, led the squad investigated in connection with the November 19, 2005, shootings in the western Iraqi town.
Wuterich's attorney, Mark Zaid, said the charges carry a maximum penalty of life in prison.
Others charged with murder are Sgt. Sanick Dela Cruz, 24, Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt, 22, and Lance Cpl. Stephen Tatum, 25. The remaining four Marines are charged with failure to properly report and/or investigate the deaths.
"The reporting of the incident up the chain of command was inaccurate and untimely," Navarre said.
Wuterich, 26, sued Democratic Rep. John Murtha after the lawmaker said in August that US troops "killed innocent civilians in cold blood."
Once charged, the defendants are entitled to an Article 32 hearing, in which a military judge would decide if there is enough evidence to convene a court-martial. The schedule for the hearing has not been set.
Iraqi witnesses say the Marines shot civilians in their homes to retaliate for the death of their comrade, Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas, who was ripped in half by a roadside bomb that exploded under a convoy rolling through Haditha, some 97km north of Baghdad.
Defence lawyers dispute that version of events and say the men from Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division were engaged in a furious battle in Haditha after the bomb exploded and the civilians may have been killed during the chaos.
Two probes were launched into Haditha, one centring on the shooting and another into whether officers attempted to falsify details of the incident.
Earlier this year, President George W. Bush vowed that any US Marine guilty of shooting Iraqi civilians would be punished, but Navarre said there was no pressure from Congress or higher-ups in the chain of command.
"The Marine Corps takes allegations of wrongdoing by Marines very seriously and is committed to thoroughly investigating such allegations. The Marine Corps also prides itself on holding its members accountable for their actions," Navarre said.