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Iraqis condemn U.S. Haditha sentence as insult

FALLUJA, Iraq (Reuters) - A three-month jail sentence for a U.S. Marine sergeant accused of leading a massacre of 24 civilians in Haditha is “an insult to all Iraqis,” a relative of one of the victims said on Tuesday.

Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich, 31, pleaded guilty on Monday at a military base in California to dereliction of duty and faces a maximum sentence of three months’ confinement, forfeiture of two-thirds of his pay for three months and a reduction in rank.

“This sentence gives us the proof, the solid proof that the Americans don’t respect human rights,” Ali Badr, a Haditha resident and relative of one of those killed, said. “This is an insult to the victims and an insult to all Iraqis.”

The last American troops pulled out of Iraq in December more than eight years after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.

The Haditha killings, along with the abuse of inmates at Abu Ghraib prison and a 2007 shooting spree by security contractors in Baghdad, sullied America’s image around the world.

Khalid Salman, a lawyer for the Haditha victims’ relatives, said he could not believe the sentence and had to check that it was true.

“This is not a traffic felony,” said Salman, who had a cousin killed in the massacre.

He criticised the length of time it took to bring the case to justice and vowed to appeal on behalf of the relatives to a U.S. court. He said the verdict “undervalues Muslim blood.”

Wuterich was accused of being the ringleader in a series of November 19, 2005, shooting and grenade attacks that left two dozen civilians dead in Haditha, a city west of Baghdad that was a hotbed of insurgent activity.

His guilty plea was part of a deal with U.S. military prosecutors in which more serious charges of involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault were dismissed.

Saleem al-Jubouri, the head of the human rights committee in the Iraqi parliament, said: “It (the three-month sentence) is a violation of Iraqis’ dignity and does not match the size of the crime committed and underestimates the value of human life.”

He said the committee would convene on Wednesday to discuss the sentence and called on the Iraqi government to issue a strong condemnation.

In the 2004 Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal U.S. troops photographed themselves humiliating and intimidating detainees.

In September 2007, Blackwater workers shot dead at least 14 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square, an incident that provoked protests in Iraq and prompted the government to deny the company a licence.

“This is a disgraceful sentence for an inhuman crime that lines up with the Abu Ghraib scandal and Nisour Square massacre,” said Hussein Ali, a 40-year-old Baghdad engineer.

“History will mention this sentence and will show how the Americans have a black history that disrespects human blood.”

Reporting by Fahdel al-Badrani; Editing by Jim Loney and Robert Woodward