CAMP PENDLETON, UNITED STATES // When Staff Sgt Frank Wuterich finally spoke in court he did not address the judge but instead directed his words at the Iraqi family members who survived his squad's attacks in 2005 that left 24 unarmed civilians dead.
The Camp Pendleton Marine apologised for the loss of their loved ones and said he never intended to harm them or their families. He went on to tell the court that his guilty plea in no way suggests that his squad behaved badly or dishonourably.
"But even with the best intentions, sometimes combat actions can cause tragic results," Wuterich, 31, said in an unsworn statement.
The lone Marine was convicted of a single count of negligent dereliction of duty. He faces having his rank reduced but he will not go to jail as a part of a plea agreement that abruptly ended his long-awaited manslaughter trial.
Wuterich, who admitted to instructing his men to "shoot first, ask questions later," defended his order to raid homes in Haditha after a roadside bomb killed a fellow Marine. He said his aim was "to keep the rest of my Marines alive."
His sentence yesterday ended a six-year prosecution that failed to win any manslaughter convictions. Eight Marines were initially charged; one was acquitted and six others had their cases dropped.
The plea deal that dropped nine counts of manslaughter sparked outrage in the besieged Iraqi town and claims that the US did not hold the military accountable.
"I was expecting that the American judiciary would sentence this person to life in prison and that he would appear and confess in front of the whole world that he committed this crime, so that America could show itself as democratic and fair," said the survivor Awis Fahmi Hussein, showing his scars from a bullet wound to the back.
The military judge Lieutenant Colonel David Jones initially recommended the maximum sentence of three months for Wuterich, saying: "It's difficult for the court to fathom negligent dereliction of duty worse than the facts in this case."
Then he opened an envelope containing the plea agreement to learn its terms — as is procedure in military court — and announced that the deal prevented any jail time for the marine.
"That's very good for you obviously," Lt Col Jones told Wuterich.
It was a stunning outcome for the last defendant in the case once compared with the My Lai massacre in Vietnam.
The Haditha attack is considered among the war's defining moments, further tainting America's reputation when it was already at a low point after the release of photos of prisoner abuse by US soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad.