NEW YORK (Reuters) - "Battle for Haditha" dramatizes one of the most controversial incidents of the Iraq war -- the killing of 24 Iraqi civilians by U.S. Marines -- but former Marine Elliot Ruiz who stars in the film says it doesn't give the Marine Corps a bad name.
"We're not going after those Marines; this film doesn't blame those Marines for what happened. It's not really putting the blame on anybody," Ruiz told Reuters in an interview ahead of the film's release in New York on Wednesday.
"It puts the situation out there and lets you decide for yourself who's responsible."
The film is based on real events that happened in November 2005 in Haditha, west of Baghdad. A convoy of U.S. Marines was hit by a roadside bomb, killing a popular officer, and 24 Iraqi civilians were shot dead in the aftermath.
Eight Marines were charged in the case but charges have been dropped against five. Three, including accused ringleader Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, still face court-martial.
Iraqi witnesses say angry Marines massacred unarmed civilians after a popular comrade, Lance Cpl. Miguel "TJ" Terrazas, was ripped in half by the roadside bomb. Defense attorneys maintain that the civilians were killed during a pitched battle with insurgents in and around Haditha.
Ruiz, who fought in the initial invasion of Iraq, said he spoke to his Marine Corps buddies before taking the part of Cpl. Ramirez, who is based on a real character but with the name and many other details changed.
"I didn't want to do anything that was going to give the Marine Corps a bad name," he said.
British director Nick Broomfield says when he first met the Marines who were in Haditha, "I was probably much more judgmental."
Then, he said, he heard firsthand the stories of young men from underprivileged backgrounds who signed up fresh out of high school and were not given enough support or psychological help even after enduring traumatic combat experiences.
"(I) realized they were still traditional cannon fodder," Broomfield told Reuters.
The two Iraqi insurgents who plant the roadside bomb that sparks the killing are also presented in a way that U.S. audiences may find surprisingly sympathetic.
"You need to understand where they're coming from, and their point of view hasn't been represented in any way in the press over here," Broomfield said. He met Iraqi insurgents in Jordan, where the film was shot, in an effort to hear their side of the story as he was writing the script.
In the film, one of the insurgents is an aging former Iraqi army officer driven by patriotism and frustration after U.S. authorities disbanded the military following the March 2003 invasion. It shows how he is used by al Qaeda fighters seeking to stir up anti-American feeling, a goal that succeeds beyond their expectations with the killing of the 24 Iraqis.
"People in the States know nothing, really, about Iraqis," Broomfield said, adding that he believed this was the first feature film with Iraqi characters.
"Some of the documentaries are great but I think an American audience needs to see proper Iraqi characters in feature films," he said.
The film will play at New York's independent Film Forum before going on limited release starting in San Francisco and Chicago.
Much of the dialogue in the film was improvised by Ruiz and other former servicemen who play the U.S. Marines. Other details were pieced together from Iraqi witnesses and a U.S. military report, as well as the interviews with Marines.
"It's not saying this is a forensic examination of exactly what happened on that day in Haditha," Broomfield said. "It's saying how do things like Haditha happen? What are the circumstances of war that produce Hadithas?"
Editing by Cynthia Osterman