Haditha Squad Leader in Military Court

The Associated Press
Thursday, August 30, 2007; 10:35 PM

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. -- A Marine testified Thursday that he saw a roomful of frightened women and children moments before they were killed by his squad mates in Haditha, Iraq, but he said he did not see who shot them.

Lance Cpl. Humberto Mendoza was the first witness at a hearing to determine whether Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, 27, of Meriden, Conn., will face a court-martial on charges of murdering 17 civilians.

Wuterich had been charged with murdering 18 Iraqis in a bloody combat operation that left 24 civilians dead, but at the outset of Thursday's hearing prosecutors withdrew one murder count.

While the number of suspected murders makes Wuterich's case the biggest to have emerged against any U.S. service member to have served in Iraq, the hearing comes after a string of setbacks for Marine prosecutors.

The case centers on whether Wuterich, who had never experienced combat before, acted within Marine rules of engagement when he shot men by a car and then led his squad in a string of house raids.

Wuterich asserts that he was following combat rules and that he assaulted the houses because he thought gunfire was coming from them.

Mendoza described the events of Nov. 19, 2005, as being a fast-flowing series of engagements. After a Marine Humvee driver was killed in a roadside bomb, the troops raided several homes.

"When I opened the door, the first thing I see is womens and kids laying down on a bed," Mendoza, who is from Venezuela and has a heavy accent, recalled seeing in the second house he helped raid. "I believe they were scared."

Aerial footage from an unmanned drone shows that Marines were engaged in several other combat operations around Haditha that day. The Associated Press obtained the footage on Thursday.

Mendoza testified that he had shot an unarmed Iraqi man who opened the front door to the home, and that he shot a different man in another house who he thought was reaching for a weapon.

Mendoza said the killings were within combat rules because the occupants of the homes had been declared hostile.

Prosecutors called as a witness Capt. Kathryn Navin, a Marine lawyer who testified that she instructed Wuterich's company on rules of engagement in August 2005.

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