|Sergeant Frank Wuterich (R) allegedly told marine to blame Iraqi soldiers for his 'revenge' killing of Iraqi civilians [AFP]
A US soldier has told a military jury in California how his commander killed five Iraqi civilians in the western al-Anbar province in 2005 and then asked him to lie about it.
"I saw Sergeant Wuterich approach the bodies, he shot at them."
- Sergeant Sanick Dela Cruz
At a trial stemming from one of the Iraq war's most controversial episodes, Sergeant Sanick Dela Cruz testified on Wednesday, the third day of Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich's court martial.
Wuterich was Dela Cruz's squad leader, who Dela Cruz said gunned down the Iraqis after they pulled up in a car near the scene of a bombing in which a US marine had died.
In all, 24 Iraqi civilians including women and children were killed in the revenge attacks - 19 in several houses along with the five men who pulled up in a car in the town of Haditha on November 19, 2005.
At the military trial in Camp Pendleton, California, Dela Cruz told prosecutor Lieutenant Colonel Sean Sullivan that he saw the men outside the car on the side of the road.
Al Jazeera's Kimberly Halkett reports on Staff
Sergeant Frank Wuterich's military case in California
He testified that the Iraqis did not appear to have any weapons and were not making any quick moves toward the car. He said he then saw a man drop to the ground.
"That's when I saw Staff Sergeant Wuterich kneeling with his gun aimed at the Iraqi. He was by the road holding the weapon in a firing position," said Dela Cruz, demonstrating that position in the courtroom.
He said he could not recall how many gunshots he had heard. Dela Cruz also said that when he looked back in the direction of the car he did not see any of the men anymore.
"I run through there and crouched on the side of the vehicle. I saw four to five Iraqis dead near the trunk area of the car," he said.
"I saw Sergeant Wuterich approach the bodies, he shot at them," said Dela Cruz, adding that Wuterich went around to each corpse and shot it in the upper body from close range.
"Sergeant Wuterich approached me and told me if anyone asks, the Iraqis were running away from the car and the Iraqi army shot them," Dela Cruz said.
Dela Cruz, a veteran of three combat deployments, said he later urinated on the mangled head of one of the bodies, adding that he was "regretful" of his actions.
"I was pissed, sir, about what happened (the bombing)," he said.
Al Jazeera's Omar Al Saleh reports from Baghdad where he speaks to the fmailies of the victims
The Haditha victims included women and children who were shot dead at point-blank range. Six people were killed in one house, most shot in the head, including women and children huddled in a bedroom.
Seven other marines charged in the case have been exonerated through various legal rulings, fueling anger in Iraq, where authorities had pushed for US troops to be subject to Iraqi justice before the US pullout in December.
Defence lawyer Haytham Faraj questioned Dela Cruz's credibility, contending that he had a record of lying numerous times to military investigators in Iraq about what had happened the day of the killings.
Faraj also argued that Dela Cruz signed statements "fed" to him by investigators, saying the government had "bought" Dela Cruz's testimony by dismissing murder charges against him and granting him immunity.
Dela Cruz testified that he believed the squad was disciplined in general and also disciplined under fire. He told Faraj that he decided to tell the truth after speaking with a lawyer in Iraq in April 2006.
"My conscience is clean, sir," he said.