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Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich, shown here in a 2005 photo, has been charged with unpremeditated murder involving 18 civilians in Haditha. ((Mark S. Zaid/Associated Press))

Four marines, including a squad leader, were charged with murder Thursday in the slaughter of 24 Iraqi civilians — in the biggest American criminal case involving civilian deaths to arise from the Iraqi war.

Military officials charged four other marinesfor alleged failuresin investigating and reporting the slayings in the Iraqi town of Haditha on Nov. 19, 2005, aMarine Corpsspokesman said.

The marineswill not facethe deathpenalty because they have not been charged with premeditated murder, CBC News correspondentSteve Futterman reported from Camp Pendleton, Calif.,where all of those chargedare based.

Seven of the eight marines have also been charged with either falsifying reports or obstruction of justice in what authorities allege was a deliberate attempt to cover up the killings.

Victims initially described as insurgents

In the incident, two dozen unarmed men, women and children were shot to death in Haditha, about 95 kilometres north of Baghdad.

Hours before the shootings, a roadside bomb exploded under a vehicle in a U.S. military convoy travelling through the city, killing a marine, Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas.

Iraqi witnesses, who described the slayings as a massacre, have alleged the marines gunned the civilians down in their homes to avenge the marine's death.

The U.S. military initially reported that a bomb planted by insurgents killed the marine and 15 Iraqi civilians.

It also said that after the blast, the insurgents opened fire on the convoy, and in the resulting firefight eight insurgents were killed and one was wounded.

Nohostile fire, all civilians

AU.S. military investigation, prompted by a report in Time magazine, found the civilians had been killed by the marines and not in the initial explosion ashad beenreported.

It also found that some of the Iraqis had been shot at close range.

The investigation decided 15 of the dead Iraqis were civilians, while the other nine were insurgents.

The U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service launched two investigations to probe the incident further.

The first looked at whether the marines broke the laws of war by targeting civilians, while the second looked at whether there had been an attempt to cover up the incident.

Investigators concluded the marines did not come under hostile fire that day and all of the victims were civilians.

Squad leadercharged with18 murders

The charges laid on Thursday include:

  • Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich, with unpremeditated murder of 18 civilians, including six people inside a house thatmembers of his squad cleared with deadly force. Wuterich, of Meriden, Conn., also faces one count of murdering six people by issuing a command for his subordinates to "shoot first and ask questions later." Among the charges considered to be less serious against Wuterich are that he told a staff sergeant and a corporal to lie in official statements.
  • Sgt. Sanick P. Dela Cruz, withthe unpremeditated murders of five people and making a false official statement with intent to deceive.
  • Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt, 22, of Carbondale, Pa.,withthe unpremeditated murder of three Iraqis.
  • Lance Cpl. Stephen Tatum, 25, of Edmund, Okla.,with the unpremeditated murders of two Iraqis, negligent homicide of four Iraqi civilians and assault upon two Iraqis.

'Purely accidental killing'

Wuterich's lawyer, Neal Puckett, has maintained that his client is innocent.

Puckett has said the marines were going after potential insurgents and not trying to avenge the killing of another marine.

He said all of the marines involved in the killings say they were reacting lawfully to a perceived threat.

Puckett said the killings were "not planned," "not payback," and "not intentional," but a "purely accidental killing."

"Our view has been and continues to be that these are combat-related deaths," said Sharratt's lawyer, Gary Myers.

With files from the Associated Press