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Haditha Squad Leader Faces Murder Charges at Camp Pendleton

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. (AP) -- A Marine testified in a military hearing Thursday that he saw a roomful of frightened women and children moments before they were killed by his squad mates in Haditha, Iraq, but he said he did not see who it was that killed them.

Lance Cpl. Humberto Mendoza testified as the first witness at a preliminary hearing for Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, 27, of Meriden, Conn.

Wuterich was charged with murdering 18 Iraqis in a bloody combat operation that left 24 Iraqi civilians dead, but at the outset of Thursday's hearing prosecutors withdrew one murder count.

The number of alleged murders makes Wuterich's case the biggest to have emerged against any U.S. troop to have served in Iraq. The case centers on whether Wuterich, who had never experienced combat before, acted within Marine rules of engagement when he shot men by a car and then led his squad in a string of house raids.

Mendoza described the events of Nov. 19, 2005, as being a fast-flowing series of engagements. After a Marine Humvee driver was killed in a roadside bomb, the troops raided several homes.

"When I opened the door, the first thing I see is womens and kids laying down on a bed," Mendoza, who is from Venezuela and has a heavy accent, recalled seeing in the second house he helped raid. "I believe they were scared."

Mendoza testified that he had shot an unarmed Iraqi man that opened the front door to the home, and that he shot a different man in another house who he thought was reaching for a weapon. Mendoza said the killings were within combat rules because the occupants of the homes had been declared hostile.

The prosecution's withdrawal of the murder count left Wuterich accused of murdering 17 people. One of his military defense attorneys, Lt. Col. Colby Vokey, said the government was no longer charging Wuterich with murdering an Iraqi man who died in the final house cleared by Marines.

Vokey said the charge was withdrawn after the general overseeing the case dismissed charges against another Marine accused of killing three other men in the same room of the house, ruling that they posed a legitimate threat.

Prosecutors have given Mendoza immunity to testify in the case - he is one of several Marines to have been immunized. How useful his testimony would be to prosecutors was unclear, as Mendoza claimed not to have directly seen Wuterich kill anyone in the two houses he helped clear with Wuterich.

"I think he's a great Marine, sir," Mendoza said when asked by military defense attorney Maj. Haytham Faraj what he thought of Wuterich.

Wuterich, who like all Marines in the court wore desert camouflage, sat with his tattooed arms folded on the table in front of him and seemed to be continually grinding his jaws together.

Mendoza also testified that he saw Wuterich open fire by the scene of the bomb blast before the house clearing began. Wuterich is accused of shooting five men who had pulled up in a car at the scene. Again, Mendoza did not specify if he saw Wuterich kill anyone.

Wuterich's preliminary hearing forms part of a military Article 32 investigation. It is similar to a grand jury probe, but in the military the accused is allowed to present his defense and to cross-examine government witnesses.

At the end of the hearing, investigating officer Lt. Col. Paul Ware will make a recommendation about whether Wuterich should stand trial. Lt. Gen. James Mattis, the general overseeing the case, makes the final decision.

Ware has already presided over two separate hearings in the case, when he listened to evidence against two of Wuterich's lance corporals - Stephen Tatum and Justin Sharratt - who were charged with murder. In both cases, Ware found prosecutors could not prove the Marines operated outside combat rules, and he recommended the charges be dismissed.

Mendoza also testified during Tatum's hearing, after which Ware ruled that Mendoza's testimony was "weak" and "not credible."

Prosecutors last year charged four enlisted Marines with murder and four officers with dereliction of duty for failing to investigate the killings.

In all, prosecutors have since dropped charges against two of the enlisted Marines and one officer.

Wuterich told investigators in February 2006 that he believed he was taking small-arms fire from a house close to the explosion so he told a four-man team to treat the building and its occupants as hostile, meaning they did not need to identify the occupants as being insurgents before opening fire.

"I told them to shoot first, ask questions later," he told investigators.

Wuterich is also charged with making a false official statement and telling another Marine to do the same. He faces a possible life sentence and dishonorable discharge if court-martialed.

Also Thursday, prosecutors filed two additional dereliction of duty charges against Lt. Col. Jeffrey R. Chessani, Wuterich's battalion leader and the highest-ranking Marine charged in the Haditha incident. An investigating officer recommended that the new charges be added.

Chessani was previously charged with two counts of dereliction of duty and one count of violation of a lawful order for failing to investigate the deaths. Lt. Gen. Mattis is still considering whether the case will proceed to court-martial.

A call to Chessani's attorney wasn't immediately returned.

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Associated Press Writer Allison Hoffman contributed to this report from San Diego.

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