"No better friend, no worse enemy." The words echoed through 2nd Lieut. Ilario Pantano's head on the afternoon of April 15, 2004. That was the motto of Lieut. General James Mattis, at the time the commander of the 1st Marine Division in Iraq. Like many junior officers, Pantano looked up to Mattis as the consummate warrior-general. The phrase had stuck with Pantano as he tried to keep his men alive in some of Iraq's meanest neighborhoods, where friends are hard to find.
Now, at the most fateful moment of his life, the words came back to haunt Pantano. It was late afternoon, and darkness was setting in. Pantano and his platoon were on a raid north of Mahmudiyah, not far from Baghdad, acting on a tip about a possible insurgent hideout. As the Marines neared their target, they spotted a car fleeing the area. Pantano's men set up a checkpoint and ordered the car to stop. Inside were two Iraqis. One looked to be in his 30s, the other in his late teens. According to accounts given to TIME by Pantano's civilian lawyer, Charles Gittins, the lieutenant had the men get out of the car and remove the seat panels to show there were no hidden explosives or weapons. Pantano watched, covering them with his M-16. At one point they began talking, and Pantano shouted at them to stop. Then, according to Pantano's defenders, the Iraqis turned rapidly and in unison toward him.
What happened next cost both Iraqis their lives, and now, nearly a year later, has Pantano fighting for his. On Feb. 1, the Marine Corps charged Pantano with at least seven violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, including two counts of premeditated murder. According to the charge sheet filed by the Marines, Pantano killed both Iraqis--who turned out to be unarmed--by shooting them in the back with his M-16. Pantano is also charged with "willfully and wrongfully" damaging the Iraqis' automobile by smashing its headlights, taillights and rear window. Finally, Marine prosecutors say, he desecrated the bodies of the dead, still inside the car, by placing a sign on the roof that said, in the words of General Mattis, NO BETTER FRIEND, NO WORSE ENEMY. Pantano will face a preliminary hearing, probably in April, that will decide whether his case will be referred to a general court-martial. If that happens and he is found guilty, he will face a long prison sentence or even, possibly, the death penalty. The severity of the charges--and the vociferousness of Pantano's defense, led by his family and backed by fellow Marine officers, Fox News diehards and New York prep-school alums--means that the trial will be one of the most closely watched of any to come out of the Iraq war. The preliminary hearing will be open to the public and so, most likely, will a general court-martial, should it occur. "This one will get tried on TV," says a former military lawyer, "not at some small base in the middle of nowhere."