United States Marine Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich
United States Marine Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich. Reuters

A Marine accused of participating in the slaughter of 24 unarmed Iraqis in Haditha, Iraq has accepted a plea deal, ending a criminal case against U.S. troops for an incident that became an enduring symbol of violence during the Iraq War.

Sgt. Frank Wuterich was the last of eight Marines to be tried for the killings and will be the only one to be sentenced, accepting a deal in which he pled guilty to dereliction of duty and had charges of involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault dismissed. Wuterich faces a maximum sentence of three months confinement and a demotion to the rank of private. Six of the other Marines had the charges against them dropped, and the seventh was acquitted.

Prosecutors charged that Wuterich led a Marine squad that killed 24 Iraqi civilians in November of 2005, describing a massacre that was an act of retribution after one of the Marines' comrades was slain by an improvised explosive device. The Marines initially said the civilians died from explosions and crossfire during a gun battle with insurgents, but Wuterich's former squad members testified during the trial that they neither took enemy fire nor found weapons during the Haditha raid.

The shooting generated international outrage and crystallized for many Iraqis a sense of anger against American troops. It was a major reason Iraqis fought against immunity for American troops, a demand that helped scuttle a deal to keep U.S. forces in Iraq after they were scheduled to be withdrawn.

While Wuterich acknowledged that he had erred in instructing his troops to open fire, telling the judge that I shouldn't have done that and it resulted in tragic events, sir, his former platoon commander testified that the Marines were justified in attacking a house they believed to contain hostile Iraqis.

No one denies that the consequences of November 19, 2005 were tragic, least of all Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, his civilian defense attorney, Neal Puckett, said in a statement released shortly after the plea hearing. But the fact of the matter is that he has now been totally exonerated of the homicide charges brought against him by the government and the media. For six years he has had his name dragged through the mud. Today, we hope, is the beginning of his redemption.