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Plea deal in deadly U.S. raid outrages Iraqis

In this town that saw 24 unarmed civilians die in a U.S. raid seven years ago, residents expressed disbelief and sadness that the Marine sergeant who told his troops to "shoot first, ask questions later" reached a deal with prosecutors to avoid jail time.

They were outraged both at the American military justice system and at the refusal of Iraq's Shiite-led government to condemn the killings and at least try to bring those responsible to face trial in this country.

"We are deeply disappointed by this unfair deal," said Khalid Salman Rasif, an Anbar provincial council member from Haditha. "The U.S. soldier will receive a punishment that is suitable for a traffic violation."

Haditha, a town of about 85,000 people along the Euphrates River valley some 140 miles northwest of Baghdad, is overwhelmingly made up of Sunni Muslims. Sunnis lost influence in this country with the fall of Saddam Hussein and feel increasingly squeezed out of their already limited political role.

"We blame Iraqi officials because they did not take any actions to make the criminals stand trial," said Naji Fahmi, 45, a government employee who was shot in the stomach during what became known as the Haditha massacre.

Iraqi Deputy Justice Minister Busho Ibrahim said, "We have nothing to do with this issue." Ali al-Moussawi, a spokesman for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, said, "Such issue needs to be studied carefully before giving any statement."

The raid took place Nov. 19, 2005, at a time when Sunni insurgents and al-Qaida militants roamed Haditha's streets, terrorizing the population and battling U.S. forces.

Three months earlier in the same town, six Marines were massacred and their bodies mutilated when insurgents overran their observation post. Two days later, 14 Marines and an interpreter were killed when their vehicle hit a land mine.

The allegations against the Marines were first brought forward in March 2006 when Time magazine reported that it obtained a video of the attack's aftermath, taken by a Haditha journalism student inside the houses and local morgue.

The footage showed a blood-smeared bedroom floor. Bits of what appeared to be human flesh, and bullet holes could be clearly seen on the walls. Other scenes showed bodies of women and children in plastic bags on the floor of what appeared to be a morgue.

A week before images were broadcast, the U.S. military in Iraq said it was investigating potential misconduct by the troops. A military statement issued just days after the Haditha raid had described the incident as an ambush on a joint U.S.-Iraqi patrol in the town that left 15 civilians, eight insurgents and a U.S. Marine dead in the bombing and a subsequent firefight.

U.S. military prosecutors worked for more than six years to bring Marine Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich to trial on manslaughter charges that could have sent him away to prison for life.

But only weeks after the start of the long-awaited trial at Camp Pendelton, Calif., they offered Wuterich a deal that stopped the proceedings and meant no jail time for the squad leader who ordered his men to "shoot first, ask questions later," resulting in one of the Iraq War's worst attacks on civilians by U.S. troops.

Legal experts said the case was fraught with errors made by investigators and the prosecution that let it drag on for years.

It was a stunning outcome for the last defendant in the case once compared to the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. The seven other Marines initially charged were exonerated or had their cases dropped.

Most Iraqi officials the Associated Press contacted on Tuesday to comment did not respond or declined to comment. The muted reaction of the officials in the Shiite-dominated government highlights the sectarian resentments that have deepened since the last U.S. forces withdrew late last year.