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Fear of Attack Cited in Iraqi POW's Death

Marines couldn't help an injured prisoner while on alert for a mob bent on freeing another detainee, an officer testifies at court-martial.

August 12, 2004|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

CAMP PENDLETON — Marine guards at a detention facility in Iraq were distracted from caring for an injured prisoner by word that a group of angry Iraqis was on the way, an officer testified Wednesday at a court-martial hearing.

The testimony of Maj. Michael Froeder came at a pretrial hearing for Maj. Clark Paulus, accused of dereliction of duty and maltreatment of prisoners in the death of a 52-year-old Baath Party member, Nagem Sadoon Hatab, at the Whitehorse base near Nasiriyah.

Froeder, who was commanding officer of the base, said that while dealing with Hatab, who had been combative when arrested, Marines had to go on alert when they were warned that Iraqis might try to storm the place to liberate another prisoner, a high-ranking sheik.

"We had heard that 100 Hajis were coming to free the sheik," Froeder said. Hajis is slang for Iraqis.

Hatab died within 48 hours of being arrested by Marines as a possible suspect in the ambush of the Army convoy that included Pfc. Jessica Lynch.

Defense attorneys assert that it is unreasonable to expect Paulus, who had been placed in charge of the detention facility just days before, to be able to monitor the condition of every prisoner and the conduct of every Marine guard.

That argument had proved persuasive to Col. William Gallo, who earlier this year served as the judge during an Article 32 hearing, equivalent to a grand jury proceeding. He recommended that no charges be filed against Paulus.

"It would have been next to impossible for one in the middle of a war zone with no assistance from higher headquarters and no prior training to fully appreciate the scope of his duties running an enemy prisoner of war camp," Gallo concluded in March.

But Maj. Gen. William Bowdon, then commanding general of the 1st Marine Division troops remaining at Camp Pendleton, rejected Gallos' recommendation and referred the case to a formal court-martial.

Prosecutors argued that even though Paulus was not a trained prison camp director, he should have known that the Geneva Convention requires that prisoners be treated humanely and given medical care.

The scuffle between guards and Hatab occurred in June 2003. Froeder testified that a Navy medic examined Hatab while he lay on the concrete floor of the facility.

"He said, 'His vitals were fine, sir. He's probably faking.' "

After the scuffle and allegedly being kicked by Sgt. Gary Pittman, a guard, Hatab suffered severe diarrhea. Froeder said he and Paulus ordered that Hatab's clothes be stripped off and burned, and that he be taken outside.

Hatab was later found dead, naked and covered with feces in an outdoor portion of the holding facility.

An autopsy found that he had suffered seven broken ribs and died of strangulation because of a broken bone in his neck. The results of that autopsy, however, are disputed by defense witnesses, and Gallo criticized the work of the pathologist as unconvincing.

In a separate court-martial, Pittman faces brutality charges for allegedly hitting Hatab with his fist and kicking him in the chest.

Froeder also faces charges of negligence and abuse of prisoners in the incident.

Within a week of Hatab's death, a team of Naval Criminal Investigative Service agents flew to Iraq and Kuwait to interview the Marines.

Maj. Gen. James Mattis, commander of 1st Marine Division troops in Iraq, ordered an investigation.

He also ordered an overhaul of how Marines guard prisoners in Iraq, including additional training and restrictions on allegedly abusive techniques such as requiring prisoners to stand for long periods of time.

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