LOS ANGELES (AFP) — A court martial has acquitted a US Marine for his role in the deaths of 24 civilians in Haditha in Iraq in 2005, the sixth man to be exonerated in the affair.
Lieutenant Andrew Grayson, 27, was declared "not guilty on all charges" by a jury, said a spokesman for the Camp Pendleton military base in southern California where the hearing started on May 28.
Grayson had been charged with making false statements and attempting to fraudulently separate from the Marine Corps. He was also charged with obstruction of justice, but the military judge dismissed this charge Tuesday.
He was the first Marine to stand trial in connection with the killings of 24 men, women and children in Haditha, the most serious war crime allegations leveled at US forces since the 2003 invasion to topple Saddam Hussein.
On November 19, 2005, a US soldier on patrol was killed by a roadside bomb in the village of Haditha, 260 kilometers (160 miles) west of Baghdad.
Defense lawyers claim insurgents hidden in nearby houses subsequently opened fire on the soldiers, forcing them to respond.
But prosecutors say there were no insurgents, alleging that the soldiers opened fire unprovoked in revenge for their colleague's death.
In a three-hour shooting spree, they say, the soldiers shot five passengers of an approaching taxi and killed 10 women and children at point blank range, among others.
The Marines said in a press release issued immediately after the killings that 15 Iraqis had been killed by the roadside bomb that claimed the life of Lance Corporal Miguel Terrazas.
A subsequent investigation by Time magazine showed that most of the dead were killed as Marines swept through three houses near the bombing, prompting a wide-ranging internal investigation.
Eight military personnel were originally charged over the incident -- four soldiers faced murder charges and four officers, including Grayson, were accused of covering up and failing to properly investigate the killings.
However, since charges were first announced in December 2006, prosecutors have struggled to make the allegations stick.
Six have now had charges against them dropped, while charges of murder against squad leader Frank Wuterich were changed to the lesser offense of manslaughter.
Wuterich faces trial later this year, along with Colonel Jeffrey Chessani, the highest ranking officer accused over the incident who has been charged with dereliction of duty and violation of a lawful order.
Wuterich told a preliminary hearing at Camp Pendleton last September that he would "always mourn the unfortunate deaths of the innocent Iraqis who were killed during our response to that attack."
But he said: "Based on the information I had at the time, based on the situation, I made the best decision I could have."
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