US Marine withholds plea in Haditha killings case

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CAMP PENDLETON, Calif, Nov 13 (Reuters) A US Marine told a military tribunal today he would not enter a plea until his trial on charges of involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault in the killings several Iraqi women and children in the town of Haditha.

Marine Lance Cpl Stephen Tatum, who was arraigned today, faces trial starting on March 28 in the highly publicized 2005 case in which US Marines killed 24 men, women and children. Tatum, an enlisted man from Oklahoma, faces a maximum penalty of 19 years imprisonment if found guilty.

Tatum was part of a convoy of Marines, led by Staff Sgt.

Frank Wuterich, that was hit by an explosive device that destroyed a Humvee and left a well-liked young Marine dead and two others badly injured.

Prosecutors say that the surviving Marines rampaged through the village, killing five unarmed passengers in a taxi and 19 people in nearby houses.

Defense lawyers point to testimony that the Marines were ordered to ''clear the houses'' because they were being shot at, and they followed Marine Corps procedure that led to unfortunate deaths.

Four Marines were initially charged with assault and murder and four officers were charged with failing to investigate the killings and making false statements.

Since then, charges against two officers and two enlisted men have been dismissed, while Tatum and Maj Jeffrey Chessani have been ordered to court martial. Another officer and Wuterich, who led the squad during the attack on the houses, are awaiting rulings on whether or not they will face charges.

Reuters SBC VP0028

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