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Marines Speak at Sniper's Hearing Over Iraq Deaths

A Marine sniper believed he was shooting at insurgents planting a roadside bomb when he killed two Syrians in Iraq, platoon members testified in military court Tuesday.

A Marine sniper believed he was shooting at insurgents planting a roadside bomb when he killed two Syrians in Iraq, platoon members testified in military court Tuesday.

Sgt. John Winnick II is charged with voluntary manslaughter and failing to adhere to the military's rules of engagement by firing without reasonable certainty that his targets were hostile.

Winnick, 24, also faces charges of aggravated assault against two other men injured in the June 17, 2007, attack during a surveillance operation near Lake Tharthar north of Ramadi in Iraq's western Anbar province, according to charging documents.

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The case against Winnick, a team leader on his fourth Iraq deployment when the shootings occurred, again raises the question of whether a Marine pulled the trigger too quickly in a war where enemies often blend in with civilians.

Winnick and his men had just arrived in Iraq and were watching an abandoned mosque and gas station in an area known for frequent roadside bomb attacks when the shootings took place shortly after dawn.

Winnick shot after an 18-wheel soda delivery truck stopped on a well-trafficked highway at the same spot where two unidentified men had been seen apparently scooping out the area days before, said Cpl. Alexander Wazenkewitz, who was manning radio communications.

Winnick fired at a man who hopped out of the cab, took a container from a trailer compartment and began crawling on the ground.

Then all six Marines on the team stormed out of an abandoned building, some shooting at the truck passengers with shotguns.

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Wazenkewitz said he believed the possibility of a threat justified the use of force.

"I don't want to die. That's why we did it," he said.

Lt. Dominic Corabi, the platoon commander, testified he had given Winnick and his team conflicting advice about the rules governing sniper attacks that left them confused when they went into the field. He said the Marines were wary of being punished for actions they deemed legitimate in the heat of battle because of other war-related investigations.

"The general consensus was, if you take a shot, there will be a big investigation, and their main message was, 'I don't want to ruin my life or career by taking a shot the Marine Corps disagrees with," Corabi told the Marine prosecutor, Capt. Nicholas Gannon.

Corabi testified under cross-examination that investigators did not examine the truck but said investigators later told him the victims were not building a roadside bomb. The truck, which was not secured by U.S. military investigators, went missing after the attack and was not recovered, he said.

Syrian truck drivers like the two dead men, Raid Ahmed and Rayson Muhammad, commonly use the route where the shooting took place when making deliveries, Corabi said.

Marine prosecutors said they did not know the nationality of the two injured men, Hosham Motar Ibrahim and Abdullah Akhmed Hussein. A spokesman earlier said all four targets were Iraqis.

Winnick's men were members of the Camp Pendleton-based 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Division, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force - the same battalion that has generated other high-profile cases, including the prosecution of eight Marines after the shooting deaths of 24 Iraqi men, women and children in Haditha following a roadside bomb explosion.

They were working with the base's 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit when the incident occurred near the lake, a relatively isolated retreat that was once Saddam Hussein's favorite fishing spot.

Winnick, who appeared in court wearing desert fatigues and neatly combed hair, answered only procedural questions during the first day of his Article 32 hearing before Marine investigating officer Capt. Jeffrey King.

At the conclusion of the hearing, King will recommend to Marine commanders overseeing the case whether there is enough evidence to proceed to court-martial.

The charges carry a maximum 40-year sentence and a dishonorable discharge if Winnick, of San Diego, is tried and convicted.

Several other men on the team were reprimanded after the shootings, according to prosecutors.

Winnick's is the latest war-related criminal case to emerge from Camp Pendleton, including the shooting deaths of 24 Iraqi men, women and children in Haditha and the fatal kidnap and shooting of a middle-aged in Hamdania who was mistaken for a terrorist.

The Haditha case was the largest criminal prosecution to emerge from Iraq. Eight Marines were initially charged with murder or failing to investigate, but charges were dropped against six and one, an officer, was acquitted of charges that he failed to investigate.

An eighth Marine, squad leader Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, is the only one still facing prosecution. Wuterich, of Meriden, Conn., faces voluntary manslaughter and other charges in the Haditha deaths, which happened in November 2005 after a roadside bomb hit a Marine convoy, killing a Humvee driver and wounding two other Marines.

In the Hamdania case, squad leader Lawrence Hutchins III was the only one of eight servicemembers initially charged to be convicted of murder. He was sentenced to 15 years in the brig - later reduced to 11 years - a dishonorable discharge and reduction in rank from sergeant to private.