Monday, May 23, 2005

An Iraqi Police Officer's Death, a Soldier's Varying Accounts


“The American soldier and the Iraqi police officer were on patrol together outside a flea market south of Baghdad, chatting from time to time, when one of them suddenly started shooting.

What prompted the gunfire is a matter of dispute, but one thing is not: The soldier, Cpl. Dustin M. Berg, fired three times at his Iraqi partner, Hussein Kamel Hadi Dawood al-Zubeidi, and killed him. As Corporal Berg ran away, he picked up Mr. Zubeidi's AK-47 and shot himself in the side.

In the days that followed, Corporal Berg lied about what happened, saying Mr. Zubeidi was the one who had shot him. And for months he went right on lying, after he recovered from his wound, after he left Iraq, even after he received a Purple Heart he did not deserve with his parents watching at a solemn ceremony back home in Indiana.

Unlike the prisoner abuses that have alarmed and riveted the public, these lesser-known cases have created divisions over the definition of murder in a fluid war zone. In Iraq, these stories have caused bitter resentment and distrust of the troops. Among Americans, they have strained units, leaving some Army supervisors saying troops seem reluctant to carry out their duties, and have led to an outpouring of anger in hometowns across the United States.

"These guys go out and do what their country asks them to do, and now they're being told they did it wrong?" said Rich Hendrix, a Vietnam-era veteran who spent a recent afternoon inside the American Legion Hall in Ferdinand, Corporal Berg's hometown of 2,300 in Southern Indiana, where residents overwhelmingly say they support him. "I say they're doing the best they can. You can't even be sure who's your friend and who's your enemy over there, so what are they supposed to do?"

Since the war in Iraq began more than two years ago, more than 20 American soldiers and marines have been accused of crimes in connection with the deaths of Iraqis, including the small number of cases in which service members have claimed self-defense. Navy personnel are also being investigated in the deaths of two detainees, though no charges have been filed. At least 10 service members have been convicted, but in most cases on less serious charges than those they originally faced.

No two wars are alike, making it impossible to compare these cases with those of past conflicts, and some people with military experience disagree over whether anything is different in the Iraq prosecutions.

In Vietnam, after a much longer involvement, 95 American soldiers and 27 marines were convicted of killing noncombatants. Gary D. Solis, who teaches law at the United States Military Academy at West Point, said many of those cases are similar to descriptions of killings in Iraq now being prosecuted.

"Look, there are guys who go out and for whatever reason murder defenseless people," Mr. Solis said. "They're crimes. And we're hearing the same arguments now that we heard then: that in the fog of war, you have to make instantaneous decisions. We heard exactly the same thing back then."

In some of the 20 cases, prosecutors allege that flagrant acts led to death. One soldier was convicted of murder in the death of a 17-year-old Iraqi whom he allegedly had sex with in a guard tower. Four others are accused of suffocating a detainee in a sleeping bag during an interrogation. Another was accused of shooting an unarmed Iraqi as he ran from a truck and, some witnesses said, waved a white cloth.

In other cases, service members have admitted their roles in the deaths, but have claimed that their actions were akin to "mercy killings," striking final blows to wounded Iraqis who were suffering.

But perhaps the most contentious cases are those of the handful of service members like Corporal Berg, who claim that they acted only to protect themselves from what they considered threats to their lives, as allowed by military rules. Some witnesses, however, say they saw something else entirely.

A marine from New York says he shot and killed two Iraqis he had just captured in a house raid because they made a hostile move in his direction; but why, then, did he empty his weapon, reload and shoot some more? A private from Louisiana said an Iraqi cowherd lunged toward another soldier in a field, so he shot and killed him; but the unarmed cowherd was in handcuffs, a fact, the soldier insisted, that he did not notice at first.

Jack B. Zimmermann, a Texas lawyer who has defended service members in similar cases and who also was a prosecutor and criminal judge in the Marine Corps, said he considers these cases "the closer questions - the troublesome ones."

And some military lawyers say they believe that those cases are being investigated more often in this war. Perhaps, they say, round-the-clock news media coverage of the fighting in Iraq has also meant increased scrutiny. Perhaps such cases are simply more likely to arise in a war complicated by urban combat and the fear of suicide bombers, hidden explosives and an uncertain enemy.…

Patterns of Abuse
President Bush said the other day that the world should see his administration's handling of the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison as a model of transparency and accountability. He said those responsible were being systematically punished, regardless of rank. It made for a nice Oval Office photo-op on a Friday morning. Unfortunately, none of it is true.

The administration has provided nothing remotely like a full and honest accounting of the extent of the abuses at American prison camps in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. It has withheld internal reports and stonewalled external inquiries, while clinging to the fiction that the abuse was confined to isolated acts, like the sadistic behavior of one night crew in one cellblock at Abu Ghraib. The administration has prevented any serious investigation of policy makers at the White House, the Justice Department and the Pentagon by orchestrating official probes so that none could come even close to the central question of how the prison policies were formulated and how they led to the abuses.

When we lie
We set up our frontline troops for exactly the kind of prblems we're beginning to see. We lie about the reasons for war. Like the rest of our population most soldiers believe ther was Iraqi involvement in 9-11. they think Iraqis were on the planes. They believe that there were and are weapons of mass destruction. Their leaders rally them, encourage them in disrespecting the ‘ragheads’, the ‘hajis.’ Above all we don't even count Iraqi dead unless there are cameras rolling.

The same behavior can get a soldier a medal or a court martial, and if they're guilty what about those who sent them there, armed with lies.
con·cept: An Iraqi Police Officer's Death, a Soldier's Varying Accounts