HADITHA, Iraq - In this town which 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 (220 kilometres) 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-year-old government employee who was shot in the stomach during what became known as the Haditha massacre.
Iraq's Deputy Justice Minister Busho Ibrahim told The Associated Press on the phone that "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."
Sunnis officials and Haditha residents alike said no further study was required.
"This deal is another crime committed against the victims and their families," said Youssef Ayid, who lost four brothers in the Haditha raid. "We are sad to see the criminals escape justice," Ayid said.
The raid took place on 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.
The town's residents claimed at the time that the only shooting done after the bombing was by U.S. forces.
The subsequent revelations further tainted America's reputation among Iraqis when it was already at a low point after the release of photos of prisoner abuse by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison.
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, California, 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.
The 31-year-old Marine, who was originally accused of unpremeditated murder, pleaded guilty Monday to negligent dereliction of duty for leading the squad that killed 24 unarmed Iraqi civilians during raids after a roadside bomb exploded, killing a fellow Marine and wounding two others.
Wuterich, who was indicted in 19 of the 24 deaths, walked away with no jail time Tuesday after defending his squad's storming of the homes of Haditha as a necessary act "to keep the rest of my Marines alive."
Legal experts said the case was fraught with errors made by investigators and the prosecution that let it drag on for years. The prosecution was also hampered by squad mates who acknowledged they had lied to investigators initially and later testified in exchange for having their cases dropped, bringing into question their credibility.
It was a stunning outcome for the last defendant in the case once compared with the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. The seven other Marines initially charged were exonerated or had their cases dropped.
Local Sunni leaders in Anbar province blasted the plea deal and demanded that Baghdad authorities pressure their U.S. backers not to let American soldiers get away with murder.
Hamid al-Mutlaq, a Sunni lawmaker from Anbar, echoed these remarks.
"They were supposed to protect the Iraqi people, not kill them," he said.
Muhammad Muhsin, a 26-year-old owner of a grocery store in Haditha, said the plea deal was shameful and a disgrace.
"This is a scandal and a shame for American justice," Muhsin said. "The Iraqi government bears responsibility for letting those criminals get away with their heinous crime. We demand the Iraqi government act quickly to ensure the rights of the victims and to make sure that the murderers get what they deserve."
Most Iraqi officials The Associated Press contacted on Tuesday for 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. Some fear a return to the type of sectarian warfare that ravaged Iraq during the height of the war.
Surk reported from Baghdad. Associated Press writers Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad and Hadi Mizban in Haditha contributed to this report.