HADITHA, Iraq, (Reuters) – Iraqis in Haditha, where 24 unarmed civilians were killed last year, said on Friday four U.S. Marines charged with their murder should be executed, a penalty they will not face in the United States. “They should hand them over to us so that we can kill them. They do not deserve a trial,” said one young man who refused to give his name.
Khaled Salman, whose sister Asmaa was among 24 people killed in Haditha, gathered with friends in the early hours of Friday to watch television coverage of the charges being announced. “Those soldiers killed 24 people. They killed women and children, isn’t that enough for them be executed? Just so that the family can have peace,” said Salman, 41. “It’s a political trial and it will not bring our rights back,” said Salman, visibly angry.
U.S media said none of the murder charges carries a possible death sentence because the Marines are not accused of premeditated murder.
It was midnight in Iraq when the U.S. military announced it had charged four Marines with murder and four others with dereliction of duty in the November 2005 killing in Haditha, in the restive province of Anbar northwest of Baghdad.
Iraqi witnesses say enraged Marines shot the civilians in their homes to retaliate for the death of a popular comrade who was ripped in half by a bomb that hit a convoy in the town. However, the four Marines — Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, Sgt. Sanick Dela Cruz, Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt and Lance Cpl. Stephen Tatum — face only prison sentences because the charge is of unpremeditated, not premeditated, murder.
Defence lawyers dispute the Iraqi witnesses’ version of events and say the Marines were engaged in a furious battle in Haditha after the bomb exploded and the civilians may have been killed during the chaos.
Many in Haditha, a town of over 100,000 people on the Euphrates river, stayed up to watch coverage on Arabic satellite channel Al Jazeera. On Friday morning, the trial was the talk of the town and many were glued to the screen watching special coverage. They had little confidence in U.S. justice.
Talal Saed, a judge who watched the news at Salman’s home, said: “If I were the judge on that trial I would have sentenced them to death for the terrible crime they have committed. They should be tried in Iraq and under the Iraqi law.” “This is a show trial just to show that the Americans are doing something to be fair with Iraqis but it’s nothing more than that,” he said.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has called the killings a “terrible crime”. Along with widely publicised abuses of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison, they have contributed to tarnishing U.S. prestige and drawn international condemnation.
Anger at U.S. forces has grown since tight security measures were imposed three weeks ago following a helicopter crash.
The U.S. military said two weeks ago the measures were aimed at “restricting the freedom of movement of the insurgents who have waged an intense murder and intimidation campaign on the people of this community”.
Shopkeeper Mohammed Ali said there had been food shortages for three weeks until two days ago, when U.S. troops allowed some goods to enter the town. “The Americans drive around in their cars and tell us on loudspeakers that we should hand over the gunmen or the siege will continue, but where are we going to get the gunmen from? We don’t know them,” Ali said.
Saber Mohammed, head teacher at a school, said the situation was difficult. “There is no school, the Americans have cut Haditha off from the rest of its neighbourhood so most of the time the students can’t come to school,” he said. “How long is this situation going to continue? If gunmen attack U.S. troops why is it the innocent who pay the price?”