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2 Kuwaitis Initially Suspected in Army Tent Attack

Military officials testify that the interpreters, brought to the camp a day before the grenade assault, were sleeping in command quarters.

June 20, 2003|Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writer

FT. KNOX, Ky. — The Army initially detained two Kuwaiti interpreters in the grenade attack in March on a U.S. military camp in the Middle East, only to learn that the ambush instead was allegedly the work of one of their comrades, military officials testified here Thursday.

The interpreters were sleeping in command tents in Kuwait with U.S. Army leaders when the grenades went off at 1:30 a.m. on March 23, the officials testified, and Army leaders immediately assumed that the campsite was under attack by Iraqi special forces and their sympathizers.

The translators, who the day before had been brought in to work with Army units headed to the war in Iraq, were apprehended, handcuffed and questioned under heavy military guard. While they were being held, however, investigators' attention turned to Army Sgt. Asan Akbar, 32, a devout Muslim from Los Angeles who, according to testimony, feared that soldiers would "rape and plunder" Muslim women and children.

The Army is conducting a preliminary military hearing this week on charges of premeditated murder and attempted murder against Akbar. The hearing is to wind up today with closing arguments, and then Col. Patrick Reinert will make a formal recommendation on whether Akbar should be court-martialed.

Prosecution witnesses have testified that Akbar turned off the exterior lights at the compound and then tossed grenades into three of the leadership tents. When officers began fleeing the burning tents, he then allegedly fired at them. One officer was killed by grenade shrapnel; a second was shot to death as he ran from his tent.

But two defense witnesses testified that the shooter did not resemble Akbar, and one witness insisted that there was "absolutely not" any similarity.

Col. Ben Hodges, who was the highest-ranking officer at the scene and was slightly wounded in the right arm, said he and other officers immediately assumed the Kuwaitis were behind the attack.

He said he also was thinking about a unit of Iraqi special forces spotted just across the border from Kuwait, not far from a U.S. Army fuel depot.

Hodges said the interpreters were quickly taken into custody, handcuffed and placed under heavy guard.

But then the camp realized that Akbar was missing, witnesses said, and so was a cache of grenades that he had earlier been guarding. He was found in a bunker, and an M-4 rifle he was carrying was later traced to the ambush. Akbar was placed under arrest.

Maj. Shawn Phillips testified that word spread quickly through Camp Pennsylvania, home to about 3,400 soldiers, that Akbar, an Army engineer and member of the 101st Airborne Division, had planned the attack.

"Akbar said he deliberately targeted the leadership of the brigade because we were going to rape the women and kill the children of the Muslim faith," Phillips said. "And he was going after the leadership to stop this."

On Wednesday, two other soldiers testified that Akbar once had told them of his fears of U.S. aggression against Muslim citizens in Kuwait and Iraq.

Hodges testified Thursday that after Akbar was arrested, he worried about how his troops would react to the idea of a Muslim suspect in their midst. He said he hoped that word of Akbar's arrest would be kept quiet until the investigation was completed.

"We didn't want to start generating speculation about some kind of plot by Muslim soldiers across the Army," he said.

The Kuwaiti translators, who were not injured, were later moved out of the unit. They were not listed among those considered targets of attempted murder in the charges against Akbar. Four soldiers who also were not wounded, however, were named as potential victims in the attempted murder charges.

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