LOS ANGELES (AFP) – The highest ranking Marine officer charged and later cleared in the 2005 killings of 24 Iraqis after a bomb attack in Haditha has been forced into retirement, his lawyers said.

Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Chessani left the service on Friday. "Thus ended the promising career of one of America's most effective combat leaders in Iraq -- a political scapegoat to appease the anti-war press and politicians," his lawyers said in a statement claiming Haditha was "a massacre that never happened."

A total of eight Marines were handed murder or failure to investigate charges, but seven accused were either acquitted or had charges dropped, while the squadron leader, Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich, faces reduced voluntary manslaughter charges.

Wuterich is due in court on September 13.

In June, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus accepted a December ruling by a Camp Pendleton military board of inquiry that found Chessani was not guilty of misconduct but should retire without loss of rank.

Troops under Chessani's battalion -- the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines Regiment -- killed five civilians in a street and 19 others in homes as they searched, in vain, for insurgents who planted a roadside bomb that had just claimed the life of a Marine.

Many of the victims were unarmed men, women and children.

Although Chessani was not at the scene and did not order the house searches, he was charged with failing to conduct a proper investigation of the incident on November 19, 2005 that sparked widespread outrage and anger in Iraq.