Officers who issue illegal orders and the soldiers who follow them deserve prosecution, not our support.
Military prosecutors and investigators probing the killing of three Iraqi detainees by U.S. troops in May believe the unit’s commanders created an atmosphere of excessive violence by encouraging “kill counts” and possibly issuing an illegal order to shoot Iraqi men.
At a military hearing Wednesday on the killing of the detainees near Samarra, witnesses painted a picture of a brigade that operated under loose rules allowing wanton killing and tolerating violent, anti-Arab racism.
Some military officials believe that the shooting of the three detainees and the killing of 24 civilians in November in Haditha reveal failures in the military chain of command, in one case to establish proper rules of engagement and in the other to vigorously investigate incidents after the fact.
Military officials are investigating Army Col. Michael Steele, the commander of the 101st Airborne Division’s 3rd Brigade, whose soldiers are accused of killing the three Iraqi detainees.
Investigators are trying to determine whether Steele issued an illegal order to “kill all military aged males” and encouraged unrestrained killing by his troops.
On Wednesday, a military court heard testimony from a witness who suggested that a culture of racism and unrestrained violence pervaded the unit.
The account of Pfc. Bradley Mason and other witnesses bolstered the findings of investigators who say the brigade’s commanders led soldiers to believe it was permissible to kill Iraqi men.
Military prosecutors allege that four U.S. soldiers killed three unarmed Iraqi detainees during the May 9 raid. If convicted on charges of premeditated murder, Pfc. Corey R. Claggett, Spc. William B. Hunsaker, Staff Sgt. Raymond L. Girouard and Spc. Juston R. Graber could face the death penalty.
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Mason said that just before “Operation Iron Triangle” began on an island in Tharthar Lake near Samarra, Steele and other officers ordered them to “engage and kill all military age men.”
The Defense official familiar with the investigation said that even if Steele did not issue a verbal order, many in the brigade believed that was what the commander wanted.
A senior military officer has sent a potentially career-ending reprimand to Steele, an officer who once commanded a Ranger company sent into Mogadishu, Somalia, on a rescue mission that was recounted in the book and movie “Black Hawk Down.” However, the administrative action is not final because Steele has signaled that he is going to fight the accusations and the reprimand.
Steele has refused to testify in the case of the four soldiers, citing his right against self-incrimination, unless he is given immunity, prosecutors said.
The colonel has a reputation as a tough but potentially reckless commander. Investigators have found that Steele handed out knives to U.S. troops as rewards for killing insurgents, a defense official said. The investigation of Steele was first reported Tuesday by ABC News.
Before the Tharthar raid, Claggett and Hunsaker had not yet notched a kill on a brigade chart nor earned their knives from Steele, the defense official said.
Mason depicted a unit that had embraced a violent ethos and was routinely hostile to ordinary Iraqis. Commanders encouraged soldiers to compete to rack up “enemy kills,” he said. A board at their headquarters that showed the numbers of Iraqis killed served to reinforce the message. “Let the bodies hit the floor,” read a phrase at the bottom of the board.
“That’s another terrorist down,” Mason quoted Girouard as telling soldiers after they killed someone. “Good job.”
Soldiers referred to ordinary Iraqis derogatorily as “hajis,” a reference to Muslims who have made the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, and considered the 10 or so Iraqi army soldiers and interpreters working for their unit as mostly “terrorists,” Mason said. Under questioning, Mason acknowledged saying that even before he arrived in Iraq, he asserted that “every man, woman and child in Iraq deserves to die.”
On May 8, the day before the raid, Steele reportedly addressed a group of about 100 soldiers.
“We’re going in tomorrow,” he told them, according to 1st Lt. Justin Werheim, another prosecution witness. “We’re going to hit the ground shooting, and kill all the Al Qaeda in Iraq insurgents.”
The rules of engagement were unambiguous, Werheim said, and came down “several times” via Capt. Daniel Hart, who also has requested immunity.
“We were to positively identify and kill any military-age male on the island,” Werheim said.
Another witness, Pfc. Jason R. Joseph, said the soldiers believed their orders were to kill any military-age males who were not surrendering. “They were to kill any males who didn’t have their hands in the air,” he said.
The soldiers arrived by helicopter as dawn broke, and Mason testified that they expected to take heavy fire after they landed. Mason said that as they approached one house, he unleashed a burst of six to nine rounds from his weapon, killing an “old man” standing in the window.
Mason testified that there was no Iraqi gunfire that morning. When defense lawyers asked him why he killed the man, Mason said those were his orders.
“We were told to kill all the males on the island,” he testified. “We don’t fire warning shots.”
Inside the house where Mason shot the man, soldiers found three men cowering behind a pair of women, Mason testified. The soldiers pulled the men outside and bound their hands with plastic handcuffs before searching the house. They found nothing but an AK-47 and a few rounds of ammunition, allowed by law.
Claggett and Hunsaker smiled when Girouard said they were going to kill the detainees, already handcuffed and disarmed, according to Mason’s account. “I told [Girouard] I’m not down with it,” he said. “It’s murder.”
Mason testified that he stayed in the house while the other four soldiers took the detainees outside. He heard Hunsaker yell out a profanity, and then heard automatic weapon fire, followed by two shots from a semiautomatic assault rifle, Mason testified. Prosecutors believe that Claggett and Hunsaker shot and killed the detainees.