The Haditha Charges: Symbol of a War Gone Bad

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A scene from the Nov. 19 raid

The interests of the U.S. military in Iraq, right now, demand not only that justice be done over the Haditha killings, but also that it be seen to be done — by Iraqis as well as by Americans. That may help explain the extensive indictment, announced Thursday at Camp Pendleton, California — four Marines charged with murder in the killing of 24 Iraqis, and another four officers charged with dereliction of duty for not relaying accurate information about the killings up the chain of command. The charges send a sharp message of zero tolerance for abuses of civilians to U.S. uniformed personnel in Iraq, but also to Iraqis, whose Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, had branded the incident as emblematic of a contempt for Iraqi civilian life on the part of U.S. forces. Altering that perception will certainly be critical to any prospect of success in the U.S. military's efforts to reverse Iraq's negative security trends.

The charges, which include 18 counts of murder against squad leader Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, 26, are the result of two separate military investigations that began after TIME first broke the story of the massacre that occurred on Nov. 19, 2005, when 24 Iraqi civilians were killed by Marines, allegedly in retaliation for a roadside bomb attack that killed one of their men. "As the result of a query by Time Magazine reporter in January 2006, there were several distinct but related investigations into the circumstances of the deaths of the 24 civilians, and into how the chain of command reported and investigated those deaths," said a military statement briefing reporters on the case.

Wuterich's lead civilian defense counsel, Neal Puckett, made clear that his client plans to mount a vigorous defense: "He did what he was supposed to do to protect himself," said Puckett. "Iraq is a very dangerous environment for our Marines. Any action they take can result in death. Everything Staff Sergeant Wuterich did that day was to protect his Marines and keep them from harm."

That sentiment was echoed by Theresa Sharratt, mother of Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt, 22, from Carbondale, Pa. "There's no way that I believe what's being said about that day," she told TIME. "He did what he was trained to do. They're Marines. That's their job. We're at war... He just feels let down. He hasn't told us that; I can see it in his eyes. He did his job and this is what happened."

In Iraq, the Haditha revelations simply reinforced existing negative perceptions of the U.S. mission, and it's unlikely that even by throwing the book at the men responsible, the U.S. military will earn the goodwill of the civilian population — particularly the Sunnis, who were the victims in Haditha. What's more, graphic descriptions of U.S. soldiers allegedly gunning down innocents — 10 of them women and children — in an apparent frenzy of violent frustration at their inability to find an enemy camouflaging himself in the civilian population are unlikely to help raise the morale of a U.S. public grown weary of what their Commander-in-Chief calls the "slow pace of success" in Iraq. Opinion surveys right now routinely find two out of three Americans opposed to the war and pessimistic about its chances of success. The Camp Pendleton Haditha trial is unlikely to persuade them otherwise.

With reporting by Jill Underwood/Camp Pendleton