Iraqis are angry at how court martial hearings have ended over the killing of 24 civilians in the city of Haditha in 2005

A US Marine sergeant accused of leading a massacre of 24 Iraqi civilians in the Iraqi city of Haditha pleaded guilty on Monday to negligence, ending the final prosecution stemming from a 2005 incident.

Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich, 31, the commander of a marine unit whose other members have been exonerated, entered his plea as part of a deal with military prosecutors in which more serious charges of involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault were dismissed.

Wuterich was initially charged with murder.

A sentencing hearing will be held on Tuesday, said a spokesman for Camp Pendleton, south of Los Angeles.

"Staff Sergeant Wuterich accepted responsibility ... and agreed and admits that he gave a verbal order to shoot first, ask questions later, or don't hesitate to shoot, and words to that effect," said spokesman Joe Koppel.

Live Box 20111212125010827866

"That verbal instruction caused his marines to [not] positively identify targets in the two homes. And now, at the sentencing phase, he'll be held accountable for those actions."

The victims included 10 women and children killed at point-blank range. Six people were killed in one house, most shot in the head, including women and children huddled in a bedroom.

The other seven soldiers charged in the case had been exonerated through various legal rulings, fuelling anger in Iraq, where authorities had pushed for US troops to be subject to Iraqi justice before the US pullout in December.

Wuterich now 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, a base spokesman said.

Lawyers for the troops involved argued the deaths resulted from a fast-moving situation in which they believed they were under enemy fire.

"No one denies that the consequences of November 19, 2005 were tragic, least of all Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich," his civilian defence attorney, Neal Puckett, said in a statement released shortly after the plea hearing.

Source: Agencies