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Hearings examine soldiers' conduct

Article 32 hearings are shedding light on the conduct and leadership of American troops , as well as the rules of engagement they are supposed to abide by in Iraq, where armed conflict has gone on longer and in more treacherous settings than Pentagon planners initially anticipated.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Members of the U.S. Army's 41st Regiment uncovered an AK-47 during a routine search in the dangerous Baghdad slum of Sadr City on Aug. 31. Finding a weapon was not unusual, but Sgt. Michael P. Williams, 25, said he felt danger when he saw a smirking Iraqi man in the house where the gun was found, according to the testimony of fellow soldiers.

"I feel threatened," Williams declared, the soldiers recalled. The "Iraqi went for his weapon."

Moments later, Williams shot the Iraqi man with two bullets to his head and chest, according to testimony last Friday at a military hearing, known as an Article 32 proceeding, intended to decide whether Williams would face court-martial in the killing. Other members of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 41st Regiment, said the Iraqi did not have a weapon.

Williams's hearing, in a crowded meeting room on a military base in Baghdad, focused on one of a number of murder cases involving U.S. forces. Such hearings shed light on the conduct and leadership of American troops, as well as the rules of engagement they are supposed to abide by in Iraq, where armed conflict has gone on longer and in more treacherous settings than Pentagon planners initially anticipated.

On Friday, one member of Williams's unit, Staff Sgt. Johnny M. Horne Jr., sat weeping in an improvised courtroom not far from the Williams hearing. He pleaded guilty and later was sentenced to three years in prison for shooting a gravely wounded teenager on Aug. 18.

Two other members of Charlie Company face murder charges arising from incidents in the warren of narrow lanes and squalid homes of Sadr City. In addition, at the regiment's headquarters in Fort Riley, Kan., two members of the 41st face charges of first-degree murder in the killings of two fellow soldiers.

Analysts say such cases raise important questions.

"Any time you have multiple serious offenses in a single unit you immediately think about the leadership of that unit," said Gary Solis, a former Marine officer who teaches the law of war at West Point. "Obviously that doesn't go to the crimes themselves, but as I say in class all the time, 'Why should you observe the law of war, lieutenant?'

"Because the best-led units don't commit war crimes.' "

Dangerous time
The charges against Charlie Company involved actions taken during two days in August at a particularly dangerous time for U.S. forces. Three U.S. battalions spent most of the month retaking the holy city of Najaf, about 90 miles south of Baghdad, from the Mahdi Army militia of a Shiite cleric, Moqtada Sadr. In eastern Baghdad, other U.S. forces were grinding down the militia in its urban base, exchanging fire in Sadr City each night.

Most of the victims in Sadr City are nameless, identified in court papers and testimony as "Iraqi nationals." Qasim Hassan, the only individual named in testimony, was identified by a newspaper investigating the circumstances of his death.

Hassan was riding in the back of a garbage truck that was mistakenly identified as an insurgent vehicle. It was ripped to bits by two Charlie Company units. After the incident, it was determined that the truck was operated by a businessman and was assigned to clean the street.

Still unidentified are three other victims: an Iraqi man cut down near the garbage truck while waving what appeared to be a white flag; the man Williams allegedly executed at point-blank range; and another unarmed man allegedly killed by a soldier who asked Williams excitedly, "Can I shoot this one?"

By the early morning of Aug. 18, much of Charlie Company had been up for most of four days. Horne, a sturdily built North Carolina native, was in a Bradley Fighting Vehicle overlooking an avenue on which U.S. forces were planning to launch an attack.

Williams was stationed with a team on a rooftop nearby, overlooking the same road. Both heard the combat radio crackle with a report that a dump truck was depositing bombs along the road. When a dump truck appeared, the order came to fire on it.

After a withering barrage, a man emerged from the truck and ran toward the Americans. Some soldiers on the rooftop testified that he appeared to be waving something white. Someone shouted for the man to stop and he obeyed.

"He was trying to inform us that we were shooting a truck full of children," said Pfc. Gary Romriell. "He was unarmed. I didn't take him as hostile."

'Light him up'
Moments later, the rooftop took gunfire from the opposite direction. Another squad member testified that the color of the tracer rounds indicated the shooting may have been coming from other U.S. troops. Williams ordered his team to resume firing on the truck.

"What should we do with this guy?" Spec. Tulafono Young testified that he asked Williams, referring to the man standing in the street.

"Light him up," Williams replied, according to Young and others. That order led to one of the three murder charges Williams faces.

"Mister, no more, no more," implored another passenger of the truck who was unscathed.

"My gut instinct was . . . the wrong vehicle got shot," Horne, who described having a sinking feeling as he approached the truck, said during un-sworn testimony to a sentencing panel.

He saw "a bunch" of Iraqis on the ground, two of whom were dead. He pulled one young survivor from the burning truck, then reached into the flames toward a teenager still breathing despite wounds so horrible his insides spilled out as Horne turned him over, he said. The Los Angeles Times identified him as Hassan, 16.

"There was nothing I could do for him," Horne said.

Minutes later, as fellow soldiers tended to less seriously wounded civilians, Staff Sgt. Cardenas Alban of Carson, Calif., shot Hassan, according to testimony. Horne acknowledged he fired a moment later. The boy's rattled breathing stopped. Alban is awaiting a hearing on a murder charge. Horne, whom an Army investigator praised as candid and forthcoming, was sentenced to three years in prison on Friday.

Other charges grew out of shootings on Aug. 31, as Williams' squad was conducting routine searches of houses elsewhere in Sadr City.

Under a law in effect since the U.S. occupation began, each Iraqi household is permitted one weapon. But in answer to questions by prosecutors, Young testified that Williams spoke of plans to kill any Iraqi found with a weapon. A prosecutor said Williams had spoken of killing any Iraqi males of military age. Williams, who could face the death penalty if the case proceeds to court-martial, has not testified.

During the search when Williams described sensing danger, Spec. Allen Crandall, a friend of Williams who testified under a grant of immunity, said he cut the plastic handcuffs off the smirking man, then left the room, although he sensed the shooting was imminent. Spec. Joshua R. Sickels testified that Williams reported the man's "eyes bugged out" after he had shot him a third time.

After that, the soldiers became concerned when a weapon was discovered at another house. "I figured something like that is going to happen again," Young testified.

'Crisis of conscience'
Young said he waited outside that house as Williams took custody of another man and summoned Spec. Brent W. May, a young soldier who allegedly spoke of wanting to kill someone.

"Can I shoot this one?" May asked Williams, according to two soldiers, who also heard the gunshots that followed. An Army investigator said May took a digital photo of the corpse, labeled "evidence" in his personal computer.

Soldiers said May bragged of the killing afterward. "May looked like he was excited that he got to shoot somebody," Young testified.

The shootings in Sadr City emerged when squad member Romriell, after a "crisis of conscience," slipped a note under the door of a commanding officer warning that "soldiers had committed serious crimes that needed to be looked at."

An Army investigator described Romriell as the black sheep of his squad in part because he opposed the war in Iraq. The private has since been transferred to another unit for his safety.

Young testified that Williams had said, "The first chance he gets, 'I'm going to kill Romriell.' "