Four US Marines are to face murder charges in connection with the killing of 24 Iraqi civilians in the town of Haditha last year, the military said on Thursday.
The four soldiers are among eight Marines who are to be prosecuted following the incident in November last year, the most serious war crimes case involving US soldiers since the invasion of Iraq more than three years ago.
The charges were announced at a press conference on Thursday at the Marines Camp Pendleton base in southern California, outside San Diego.
Prosecutors allege Marines went on a killing spree in Haditha, shooting unarmed men, women and children after a comrade, Miguel Terrazaz, was killed by a roadside bomb while on patrol in Haditha.
Defense lawyers have said the Marines followed established war-time rules of engagement and the deaths occurred after the soldiers became embroiled in a furious firefight with insurgents.
Among those accused of murder are Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich, who led the troops from Kilo Company 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment on the patrol.
Wuterich, 26, is charged with 13 counts of murder -- 12 individual counts and a separate charge relating to the deaths of six people.
Wuterich's defense lawyer, Neal Puckett, told reporters after the charges were announced that his client had acted lawfully.
"They believed they were authorized to use the amount of force that they did that day," Puckett said. "We're looking forward to having the opportunity to bring the facts of this case out into the public domain."
Others accused of murder are Sergeant Sanick Dela Cruz, 24, who faces five counts of murder, Lance Corporal Justin Sharratt, 22, who faces three murder charges and Lance Corporal Stephen Tatum, 25, who is charged with two murders and four unlawful killings. Wuterich, DeLa Cruz, Sharratt and Tatum could all be jailed for life if found guilty.
Four other Marines -- including 3rd Battalion Commander Jeffrey Chessani and Captain Lucas McConnell, neither of whom were in Haditha during the bloodshed -- face charges for failing to properly investigate or report the killings.
Initial reports of the incident by the Marines said 15 people had died in a roadside bombing. But an investigation published by Time magazine in March contradicted the official version of events.
Colonel Stewart Navarre said at Thursday's press conference that the Marines acknowledged the initial press release was false.
"We now know with certainty the press release was incorrect, and that none of the civilians were killed by the improvised explosive de-vice," Navarre said. "The reporting of the incident up the chain of command was inaccurate and untimely."
"The Marine Corps takes allegations of wrongdoing by Marines very seriously and is committed to thoroughly investigating such allegations. The Marine Corps also prides itself on holding its members accountable," he said.
The Haditha killings led to two separate military investigations.
The first focused on the events in Haditha itself while a second looked at whether military commanders attempted a cover-up.
The probe into events on the ground has found that 10 of the victims were women and children who died after being shot at close range.
The investigations also discovered that five unarmed men traveling in a taxi were shot dead as they approached the scene.
None of the eight accused are being held in detention ahead of hearings to determine whether they will face trial.
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