CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. - A Marine testified yesterday that he saw a roomful of frightened women and children moments before they were killed in Haditha, Iraq, but said he did not see who killed them.
Lance Corporal Humberto Mendoza testified as the first witness at a preliminary military hearing for Staff Sergeant 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 yesterday's hearing, prosecutors withdrew one murder count.
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.
One of Wuterich's military defense attorneys, Lieutenant Colonel Colby Vokey, said the government was no longer charging Wuterich with murdering an Iraqi man who died in the final house cleared by Marines.
Mendoza described the events of Nov. 19, 2005, as 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 women and kids laying down on a bed," said Mendoza, who is from Venezuela. "I believe they were scared."
Mendoza testified that he shot an unarmed Iraqi man who opened the front door, and that he shot a different man in another house who he thought was reaching for a weapon. Mendoza has been given immunity.