By Mary Slosson
CAMP PENDLETON, Calif (Reuters) - A U.S. Marine accused of leading a 2005 massacre of 24 civilians in the Iraqi city of Haditha was spared jail time when he was sentenced on Tuesday for his role in killings that brought international condemnation on U.S. troops.
The harshest penalty Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich, 31, now faces for his guilty plea on Monday to a single count of dereliction of duty is a demotion to the rank of private, the lowest rank in the service, as recommended by a military judge.
More serious charges of involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault were dismissed as part of a plea deal that cut short Wuterich's court-martial.
The outcome appeared certain to stoke outrage among Iraqis, adding to anger over other abuses by U.S. soldiers or private security contractors, including the 2004 Abu Ghraib prison scandal, during the more than eight years troops spent in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Even before it became clear that Wuterich would be spared from serving time in jail, relatives of the victims decried the results of his court-martial as a disgrace.
The head of the Iraqi parliament's human rights committee, Saleem al-Jubouri, said terms of the plea deal were "a violation of Iraqis' dignity" and vowed to convene his panel on Wednesday to discuss the matter.
Wuterich, whose guilty plea had carried a maximum possible penalty of three months in jail, showed no emotion as a military judge pronounced his sentence.
But in a pre-sentencing statement he read in court earlier in the day, Wuterich expressed remorse for the slayings and said he realized his name would always be associated with "being a cold-blooded baby-killer, an out of control monster."
As part of his guilty plea, Wuterich accepted responsibility for giving negligent verbal instructions to the Marines under his command when he told them to "shoot first and ask questions later," orders that resulted in the deaths of civilians.
In his court statement on Tuesday, Wuterich added that when he gave that order, "the intent wasn't that they should shoot civilians. It was that they would not hesitate in the face of the enemy."
He said that he and his fellow Marines behaved honorably under extreme circumstances, and that he "never fired my weapon at any women or children that day."
A final decision on a demotion of rank for Wuterich is up to the commander of the Marine Corps Forces Central Command, Lieutenant General Thomas Waldhauser, who had ruled out any confinement as part of the punishment.
Any discharge process faced by Wuterich, a father of three girls, will be separate from his sentencing.
OUTRAGE IN IRAQ
Wuterich was accused of being the ringleader in a series of shootings and grenade attacks on November 19, 2005, that left two dozen civilians dead in Haditha, a city west of Baghdad that was then an insurgent hotspot.
The killings were portrayed by Iraqi witnesses and military prosecutors as a massacre of unarmed civilians -- men, women and children -- carried out by Marines in anger after a member of their unit was killed by a roadside bomb.
Defense lawyers argued the deaths resulted from a chaotic, fast-moving combat situation in which the Marines believed they were under enemy fire.
Jeffrey Dinsmore, an intelligence officer with Wuterich's battalion, testified on Tuesday that insurgent forces "had complete control over the city (of Haditha) at the time" and the unit had received word that an ambush was likely.
He said insurgents were known to commandeer homes as places to launch attacks and to use civilians as human shields.
Six of the seven other Marines originally accused in the case had previously had their charges dismissed by military judges, while another was cleared of criminal wrongdoing.
Even before sentencing, word of a plea deal that carried a jail term of no more than 90 days for Wuterich sparked indignation in Iraq, where Ali Badr, a Haditha resident and relative of one of the victims, called it "solid proof that the Americans don't respect human rights."
"This is not a traffic felony," said Khalid Salman, a lawyer for the Haditha victims' relatives and a cousin of one of those killed, expressing his shock at the plea ahead of sentencing.
Wuterich, in his statement on Tuesday, directed an apology to family members of those killed in Iraq, but said civilians were not singled out for attack.
"Words cannot express my sorrow for the loss of your loved ones," he said. "The truth is, I don't believe anyone in my squad ... behaved in any way that was dishonorable or contrary to the highest ideals that we all live by as Marines."
"But even with the best intentions, sometimes combat actions can cause tragic results," he added, reading calmly and deliberately.
In his own remarks to the judge before sentencing, Wuterich's civilian defense lawyer, Neal Puckett, said his client had unfaltering integrity and was "not evil," but knew that his Marine career was at its end.
After the proceedings, his lawyers said Wuterich planned to pursue a post-military career in information technology.
Wuterich enlisted in the Marines after his 1998 graduation from high school, where he was an athletic honor-roll student and played with the marching band. He was serving his second tour of duty in Iraq when the Haditha incident occurred.
(Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)