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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A military judge on Tuesday dismissed the case against the highest-ranking U.S. Marine charged in the deaths of 24 Iraqi civilians at Haditha, whittling down the list of those who must still face justice for the 2005 killings to just the accused ringleader.
Military Judge Col. Steven Folsom dropped all charges against Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani, who was accused of violating a lawful order and dereliction of duty, at a hearing at the Camp Pendleton Marine base in Southern California.
Folsom's decision means that, out of eight Marines originally charged in the events at Haditha, six won dismissals of their charges and one has been cleared at court martial.
The accused ringleader, Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, still faces court martial. The proceedings against him, however, have been put on hold pending the appeal of a pretrial ruling.
Folsom threw out the charges against Chessani after finding that a four-star general who oversaw the investigation was influenced by an investigator who later became his advisor. The judge ruled that prosecutors could refile the case but it was not immediately clear if they would do so.
"We are grateful for the judge's ruling today. He was truly the last sentinel to guard against unlawful command influence," said Richard Thompson, president and chief counsel of the Thomas More Law Centre, which represented Chessani.
"Tragically, our own government eliminated one of its most effective combat commanders," Thompson said in reference to Chessani. "The insurgents are laughing in their caves."
Chessani was the highest ranking officer accused of wrongdoing in the shootings at Haditha, which was portrayed by Iraqi witnesses as a "massacre" of unarmed civilians and brought international condemnation on U.S. troops.
The witnesses claimed angry Marines killed the two dozen men, women and children after a popular comrade, Lance Cpl. Miguel "TJ" Terrazas, was killed by a roadside bomb.
Defence attorneys said the civilians were killed during a pitched battle with insurgents in and around Haditha that followed the death of Terrazas.
Chessani had been expected to face court martial later this year.
Editing by Mary Milliken and Philip Barbara