By Kristin Roberts
A U.S. Marine suspected in the killing of 24 civilians in Haditha, Iraq, sued a congressman for libel on Wednesday after the lawmaker, a prominent war critic, publicly accused servicemen of murder.
A group of Marines, while suspected, have not been charged, and official results from the military’s investigation remain outstanding. A U.S. defense official said on Wednesday, however that evidence indicates Marines deliberately shot to death unarmed civilians.
In the suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, attorneys for Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich said Democratic Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania made false, misleading and defamatory statements.
It said Murtha’s statements in the press about the case have pressured the Pentagon to pursue charges against Wuterich and other Marines, and to use them as "scapegoats" to prove that allegations of atrocities committed against Iraqis will be pursued, "no matter how baseless."
"Mr. Murtha has intentionally disseminated with malice his hearsay version of the events of November 19, 2005 with knowledge of the false and libelous nature of the statements contained therein and/or with gross negligence or reckless disregard for the truth," the lawsuit stated.
Murtha, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, has commented extensively about Haditha and many of those comments were recounted in the lawsuit. He said during a news conference in May, "Our troops overreacted because of the pressure on them and they killed innocent civilians in cold blood."
He said that Wuterich, 26, was "lashing out" and that his comments were meant to draw attention to the situation in Iraq. He did not address the specific charges in the suit.
"When I spoke up about Haditha, my intention was to draw attention to the horrendous pressure put on our troops in Iraq and to the cover-up of the incident," Murtha said.
Wuterich’s attorneys said they hope the suit will allow them to question Murtha about his discussions with the Pentagon. Lawyers for Marines suspected in the case say they have been unable to cull any information from the Defense Department.
Military criminal investigators have reviewed evidence indicating Marines deliberately shot to death two dozen Iraqi civilians last November in Haditha, a defense official said. But a senior commander still must decide on whether to bring criminal charges, officials said.
The Naval Criminal Investigative Service, responsible for cases involving Marines, opened its investigation into the incident in March after a preliminary probe found evidence the Marines killed the civilians, including children, in an unprovoked attack, contradicting the troops’ account.
Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Wednesday said the criminal investigation was ongoing.
Officials said the findings of the NCIS investigators will be forwarded to Marine Lt. Gen. John Sattler, the head of Marine forces in U.S. Central Command, to consider charges against Marines. But that decision may fall to Marine Lt. Gen. James Mattis, due soon to replace Sattler on August 14, according to Lt. Col. Sean Gibson, a Marine Corps spokesman.
An attorney for one of the Marines suspected in the killings said he expected the investigation to be completed in August.
The Haditha case is one of several in which U.S. troops are suspected of killing Iraqi civilians.
Wuterich, represented by Washington-based lawyers Mark Zaid and Neal Puckett, is suing for damages of at least $75,000, a public apology and an injunction prohibiting publication of allegations against the Marine.
© Reuters 2006