By Rob Woollard in Camp Pendleton, California
September 01, 2007 08:28am
A MARINE accused of murdering 17 Iraqis shot dead five unarmed men before asking a fellow soldier to help cover up the killings, a court has been told.
Lance Corporal Sanick DeLa Cruz said he saw Sergeant Frank Wuterich open fire on the five men, some of whom had their arms raised, shortly after a roadside bomb attack in the town of Haditha on November 19, 2005.
Prosecutors say Sgt Wuterich led Marines on a killing spree in Haditha that left 24 Iraqis dead in retaliation for the bomb attack which claimed the life of a popular comrade. The preliminary hearing at the Marines' Camp Pendleton base will determine whether Sgt Wuterich will face a court martial for the killings.
Corp DeLa Cruz, who was one of four Marines initially charged with murder before being granted immunity in exchange for his testimony, said Sgt Wuterich shot five men standing next to a car parked at the side of the road near the bomb site.
"They were just standing there, some with their hands interlocked ... Then I saw one of the men drop to the ground,'' Corp DeLa Cruz said.
"I heard some pops - pop, pop, pop. I looked around and saw Sergeant Wuterich kneeling with his gun and shooting in their direction.''
Corp DeLa Cruz himself then fired more rounds into the pile of dead bodies before Sgt Wuterich methodically moved through the corpses shooting each one again.
"He went to each Iraqi male and shot at them one-by-one,'' Corp DeLa Cruz said.
Hours after the bloodshed, Sgt Wuterich sought out Corp DeLa Cruz and told him to lie to investigators if he was questioned over the deaths.
"He told me that if anybody asks about those five Iraqis to say they were running away and the Iraqi army shot them,'' Corp DeLa Cruz said.
Sgt Wuterich also urged CorpDeLa Cruz to lie about the deaths on three further occasions, Corp DeLa Cruz added, saying he had gone along with the plan.
"I didn't want our company to get in trouble,'' he said.
Under cross-examination from Lieutenant Colonel Colby Vokey, Sgt DeLa Cruz denied being responsible for firing the first shots at the five Iraqis.
"You didn't fire the first shots?'' Lt Vokey asked.
"No, sir,'' Sgt DeLa Cruz replied.
But DeLa Cruz admitted urinating on one of the bodies of the dead men.
"I know it was wrong but at that time my emotions took over,'' he said.
"I wasn't really thinking right. That's what made me do it. And I thought the men were guilty because Sergeant Wuterich had shot them.''
The Haditha killings are the most serious allegations of war crimes leveled at US troops since the invasion to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003.
A total of eight Marines were initially charged in connection with the Haditha deaths.
Four were charged with murder while four senior officers were accused of failing to properly investigate the killings.
Of the four marines charged with murder, two, including Sgt DeLa Cruz, have since had charges withdrawn, while allegations against a third are also expected to be dismissed.
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