US officer charges dismissed in Haditha killings

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SAN FRANCISCO, Sep 19 (Reuters) The US Marines have dismissed charges against an officer accused of failing to report accurately the US killing of 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha in 2005.

Capt Lucas McConnell was granted immunity by Camp Pendleton's commanding officer, Lt Gen James Mattis, and will cooperate in the remaining Haditha prosecutions, the Marines said in a statement yesterday.

McConnell, 30, monitored fighting in and around Haditha but was not at the scene when women and children were among those killed in two Iraqi homes after a Marine beloved by his unit was killed by a roadside bomb.

''Lt Gen Mattis determined that administrative measures are the appropriate response for any errors or omissions allegedly committed by McConnell,'' the Camp Pendleton statement said.

The commanding officer of Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, McConnell had been charged with two counts: failing to report the incident accurately to higher authorities and failing to ensure a thorough investigation.

''From our perspective he had been the public whipping boy, along with the rest of the Haditha Eight, for a year and a half,'' said McConnell's lawyer, Kevin McDermott.

The defense attorney said the proper focus should be on military commanders who set the basic rules of engagement for US forces.

''You don't want the lance corporal, the 19-year-old kid with the M-16, thinking twice about pulling the trigger for fear that he'll end up being investigated if in fact he reasonably believes there are insurgents involved with the attack upon him,'' McDermott said.

FOUR STILL FACE CHARGES Military prosecutors initially charged eight Marines, including four officers, in the case. Marine authorities have since dismissed charges against four of them.

They include McConnell; Sgt Sanick Dela Cruz, a key witness against alleged ringleader and quad leader Frank Wuterich; Lance Cpl Justin Sharratt and Capt. Randy Stone. An investigator has recommended that charges be dropped against a fifth Marine as well.

In a hearing this month, Wuterich admitted he shot some of the victims, but in a proper response to attacks on Marines.

''Engaging was the only choice: the threat had to be neutralized,'' Wuterich said about an initial fatal shooting of five Iraqi men near a car.

Wuterich and several other Marines later cleared out two nearby homes, which resulted in another 19 deaths. He admitted telling his men to ''shoot first and ask questions later.'' The Haditha deaths, along with the Abu Ghraib prison abuses and other cases, have sparked international anger over US treatment of Iraqis.

REUTERS RC BST0548

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