CAMP PENDLETON, Calif (Reuters) - The U.S. Marine sergeant accused of leading a 2005 massacre of 24 civilians in Haditha, Iraq, expressed sorrow for the killings as he returned to military court on Tuesday to face sentencing for his role in the deaths.
Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich, 31, pleaded guilty on Monday to a single count of dereliction of duty as part of a deal with military prosecutors in which more serious charges of involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault were dismissed.
The guilty plea cut short Wuterich's court-martial, ending the final prosecution of alleged atrocities that sparked public outrage and brought international condemnation of U.S. troops.
As part of his guilty plea, Wuterich accepted responsibility for providing negligent verbal instructions to the Marines under his command when he told them to "shoot first and ask questions later," which resulted in the death of innocent civilians.
But Wuterich, in his pre-sentencing statement, added, "When I told my team to shoot first and ask questions later, the intent wasn't that they should shoot civilians. It was that they would not hesitate in the face of the enemy."
He faces a maximum sentence of three months of confinement, forfeiture of two-thirds of his pay for three months and a reduction in rank when he is sentenced on Tuesday, a Camp Pendleton spokesman said. Any discharge process Wuterich may face will be separate from the plea and sentencing.
Wuterich was accused of being the ringleader in a series of November 19, 2005, shootings and grenade attacks that left two dozen civilians dead in Haditha, a city west of Baghdad that was then a hotbed of insurgent activity.
The killings were portrayed by Iraqi witnesses and military prosecutors as a massacre of unarmed civilians -- men, women and children -- carried out by Marines in anger after a member of their unit was killed by a roadside bomb.
Defense lawyers argued the deaths resulted from a fast-moving combat situation in which the Marines believed they were under enemy fire.
In his statement Tuesday, Wuterich, who was originally charged with murder in the case, said he realized that his name "will always be associated with a massacre, being a cold-blooded baby-killer, an 'out of control monster.'"
And addressing family members of those killed in Iraq, he said, "words cannot express my sorrow for the loss of your loved ones," but he insisted civilians were not singled out for attack.
"The truth is, I don't believe anyone in my squad ... behaved in any way that was dishonorable or contrary to the highest ideals that we all live by as Marines," he said. "But even with the best intentions, sometimes combat actions can cause tragic results."
Six out of the eight Marines originally accused in the case had their charges dismissed by military judges, and a seventh was cleared of criminal wrongdoing.
Wuterich enlisted in the Marines after his 1998 graduation from high school, where he was an athletic honor-roll student and played with the marching band.
He was serving his second tour of duty in Iraq when the Haditha incident occurred.