x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Haditha verdict is an indictment of US

A soft punishment for just one US soldier is the ultimate proof of how badly the American military has handled the Haditha killings.

War is a brutal business, an obvious point but one that cannot be overstated. Its execution demands strong and moral leadership to preserve any semblance of legitimacy. Sacrificing codes of conduct - for vengeance, expediency or both - is the surest way to turn a brutal trade into cold-blooded barbarism.

How does Washington, then, intend to turn the page on the invasion of Iraq and the legion of suffering that it caused?

For many Iraqis, the events of November 19, 2005, in the city of Haditha epitomise the distrust that the war galvanised. Twenty-four Iraqis, including unarmed women and children, died in a hail of gunfire that investigators have called deliberate.

And yet, with one fading chance to ameliorate a permanent stain on America's reputation, the world's greatest military power failed again, by refusing to send the final suspect in the Haditha case to prison. When the final gavel fell on Tuesday in the case against the US marine who ordered the rampage, justice was the casualty.

Sergeant Frank Wuterich will serve no time, receive his full salary and suffer only a demotion in rank - to private - meaning he could remain in uniform. This despite pleading guilty to dereliction of duty and admitting that he ordered his men to "shoot first, ask questions later". The cases against six other men had already been dropped or dismissed. A seventh was acquitted.

Iraqis' sense of betrayal is palpable. As Khalid Salman Rasif, an Anbar provincial council member from Haditha, told the BBC: "The US soldier will receive a punishment that is suitable for a traffic violation."

There is no repairing the damage done in that war, just as there is no excusing the conduct of the US military during the investigation, trial and prosecution of the Haditha raid. Pentagon leaders did not order an investigation into the killings until details were first reported by the media. Those details, coming not long after the airing of prisoner-abuse photographs from Abu Ghraib, only reinforced the impression that America's talk of fairness and justice was just that.

The United States entered a war in 2003 with neither the leadership nor the commitment that would have limited civilian deaths. The Camp Pendleton trial was an opportunity to repair a damaged US image while giving Iraqis at least one chance at justice. Sadly, it delivered on neither.