In what the Iraqi ambassador to the U.S. called an "encouraging" sign, the sergeant who allegedly led a squad of Marines into what became known as the Haditha massacre that claimed the lives of 24 Iraqi civilians in 2005 must stand trial, a military judge ordered today.
Judge Lt. Col. David Jones dismissed a motion from the defense to drop charges against squad leader Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich. Lawyers for Wuterich, 30, argued that the general who leveled charges against Wuterich and seven other Marines was improperly influenced by a legal aide, Col. John Ewers, who had been involved in the shooting investigation.
But Jones ruled there was no "meaningful comment" between Gen. James Mattis, who brought charges, and Ewers, who had investigated the case as a military lawyer, The Associated Press reported.
"It is encouraging that this case has not been dropped," Iraqi ambassador to the U.S. Samir Sumaida'ie told ABC News. "I feel that the victims of that massacre deserve justice and that justice should be done."
Of the eight Marines originally implicated in the deadly shooting and the following alleged cover-up, six had their charges dropped and a seventh was acquitted.
Wuterich's attorney, Haytham Faraj, told ABC News Wuterich was "disappointed" about the ruling, but was "looking forward to the trial."
"Our guy is innocent of the thing he's accused of. When evidence comes out, it will become clear who shot whom and who should be on trial," Faraj said.
Sumaida'ie, whose family is from Haditha, said that Wuterich's trial could be a "vindication of the American system of justice."
"In terms of particular individuals and their cases, that is for the courts to decide," Sumaida'ie said. "But there are feelings obviously of sadness and bitterness that were left by this traumatic event, this tragedy. It is a stain on reputation of American forces that should be removed, that American military forces do not deserve."
Faraj said he understands the ambassador's frustration, but urged the public to view the trial with a discriminating eye.
"There were women and children that were killed," Faraj said. "Anytime people are killed, we should hold those responsible accountable, but we also have to take care not to lump everything together. That's where we go wrong... the person accountable should be held accountable, [but] not because he was in charge that day."
Wuterich's trial is set to begin in September.
Wuterich Recounts Bloody Day in Haditha
On Nov. 20, 2005, the bodies of 24 Iraqi civilians were wrapped in colorful cloth and lain on the floor of a building in Haditha, Iraq. Some of the bundles were much smaller than others. Those were the children.
The day before, a squad of U.S. Marines had been attacked by a roadside bomb. One Marine was killed in the attack.
The Marines' squad leader, Wuterich, and another Marine then fired at a group of nearby Iraqis who were fleeing the scene. They killed five, according to the account Wuterich gave CBS' "60 Minutes" in August 2008.
Wuterich said his men came under fire, but didn't know from which direction the shots were coming. Wuterich ordered his men to clear a nearby house and, by his own account, to shoot first and ask questions later, according to the CBS report. His men cracked the door and rolled a grenade in.
"…I remember there may have been women in there, may have been children in there," he said. "My responsibility as a squad leader is to make sure that none of the rest of my guys died ... and at that point, we were still on the assault, so no, I don't believe [I should have stopped the attack]."
He went with his troops to the next house.
"We went through that house much the same, prepping the room with grenades, going in there, and eliminating the threat and engaging the targets…There probably wasn't [a threat], now that I look back on it. But there, in that time, yes, I believed there was a threat," he told CBS.
In the end, 24 civilians were dead, including a 3-year-old and a 2-year-old.
Faraj said that when the trial starts, forensic evidence will show that Wuterich did not kill anyone.
Military Investigates Shooting
After Time magazine broke the story in spring 2006, the military launched two probes into the incident -- one led by former Special Forces commander Maj. Gen. Eldon Bargewell and another by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, or NCIS.
Bargewell's report claimed Marine Corps commanders in Iraq showed a "willful" failure to investigate the killings, the New York Times reported in 2007.