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WAR WITH IRAQ

Suspect Called Family Before Grenade Attack

Army sergeant asked his former in-laws to say 'final prayers' for him, according to sources.

March 29, 2003|Dan Morain and Lianne Hart | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO — Asan Akbar, the U.S. Army sergeant accused of a grenade attack that killed two fellow soldiers and injured 14 others in Kuwait, phoned his ex-wife's family about a day before the attack and asked that they say "final prayers" for him, according to sources familiar with the conversations.

Akbar, a Muslim, told his former in-laws that he was concerned he might die without having made the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims are expected to make at least once. He promised to send his ex-wife's family money to travel to the holy city in Saudi Arabia on his behalf the sources said.

Akbar's former in-laws have described the telephone call to federal investigators, who are intrigued by it, according to sources familiar with the investigation who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Akbar's words, coming about a day before the attack on his comrades, could be evidence of premeditation. But his comments could also be interpreted simply as the fears of a military man about to head into combat.

Authorities say Akbar, 31, rolled grenades into each of three tents at Camp Pennsylvania in Kuwait where officers and noncommissioned officers were asleep early Sunday, then shot at least two fellow soldiers as they fled from their tents.

Capt. Christopher S. Seifert, 27, of Easton, Pa., died of gunshot wounds in the attack. Air Force Maj. Gregg L. Stone, 40, from Boise, Idaho, died of his wounds Tuesday.

Earlier this week, a military magistrate found there was probable cause to believe Akbar committed the attack, according to a statement issued at Ft. Campbell, Ky., home of his unit, the Army's 101st Airborne Division. Akbar was transferred from Kuwait to a military detention facility in Mannheim, Germany, for a pretrial investigation.

On Friday, Lt. Col. Brian McNerney said Akbar had left the Mannheim facility. He declined to say where Akbar had been sent, but military officials had previously said that the suspect would eventually be returned to the United States for trial.

Akbar was married in April 1996, but acquaintances from his days at UC Davis, where he was a student on and off from 1988 to 1997, said he had separated from his wife by 1997. A former landlady said Akbar told her that year that he had divorced his wife according to Islamic law.

The divorce became final under California law in 2001, when he and his wife submitted dissolution papers to a Superior Courthouse in Northern California. The decree was file-stamped Sept. 11, 2001.

Akbar's former in-laws issued a statement on Friday saying that "our hearts and prayers go out to the soldiers hurt or killed in the attack ... and to their families."

"We understand that many people are interested in Asan Akbar. In our family experience, we knew him as a good and decent person who was very caring of his family. We are shocked and saddened at learning that he may have been involved in this terrible event," the in-laws said. "We have no further insight to offer."

Friends of the family say they fear retribution if their identities become widely known.

Akbar, who was raised in Los Angeles and Baton Rogue, La., is said to have made anti-American statements after he was overpowered and apprehended after the attack. Witnesses recalled that as he was being led away, he said: "You guys are coming into our countries and you're going to rape our women and kill our children."

College classmates, acquaintances and family members, however, remain puzzled by those accounts. They describe a man who was a devout follower of Islam, and not one to commit violent acts.

"I can't see him doing it," said Jeff Burgos, a friend of Akbar's at UC Davis in the late 1980s and early '90s. "This threw me for a loop."

Former classmates at UC Davis described Akbar in his college days as being a devout Muslim. Two recalled an instance in which he became so engrossed in a video game that he lost track of time and missed his sunrise prayers. He was distraught and angry with himself.

On summer days when temperatures exceeded 100 degrees, Akbar would not wear shorts and instead wore long pants and robes. He never drank alcohol, and he followed Islamic dietary law.

Another former classmate, Ron Hubbard, said Akbar never seemed radical. But he did have a certain cynicism toward government. He recalled Akbar, who is African American, telling him one day that a police officer stopped him when he was jogging near the campus, and adding that he would not have been stopped if he were white.

"I was amazed he joined the military," Hubbard said. "He was a very mellow person. He had a mischievous side. But he was never violent."

Members of Akbar's family in Louisiana say they don't believe he committed the attacks, but that if he did, it must have been in response to harassment he received in the military. Akbar's younger brother, Ismail, served in the Air Force but left after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, saying he was harassed because of his Islamic faith.

William Bilal, the ex-husband of Akbar's mother, recalled speaking with Akbar at a Christmas dinner three years ago in Baton Rouge.

"He said it was hard for a black man to make rank," said Bilal. "Asan has always been an achiever. Knowing him, if he was Caucasian, he'd probably be a lieutenant or captain."

"If the investigation shows this is Asan, then circumstances drove him to it, because it's not in his nature or makeup," Bilal said. "I don't know if he did it or didn't do it. But I searched my heart and realized we all have a breaking point."

Bilal was arrested Thursday on a federal charge of being a felon with weapons in his home. He has a rape conviction from 1970. U.S. Atty. David Dugas said there was no indication of a connection between the arrest and Akbar's case.

*

Times staff writer Richard B. Schmitt contributed to this report.

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