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A Tank Shot and Its Echo

A Spanish cameraman at a Baghdad hotel was killed by U.S. fire. His family seeks justice, and the Americans involved ask for understanding.

April 27, 2006|Tracy Wilkinson and David Zucchino | Times Staff Writers

LAS ROZAS, Spain — In her tidy living room, Maria Isabel Permuy keeps lighted candles next to photos of her dead son, Jose Couso. Consumed by grief, she believes American soldiers murdered him as he filmed the battle for Baghdad from the Palestine Hotel three years ago this month.

Half a world away, in Kentucky, the commander of the Army tank that fired the fatal round still carries the burden of what happened as he fought to hold the Jumhuriya Bridge over the Tigris River. Sgt. 1st Class Shawn Gibson, a devout Christian, prays for Couso's family, and for understanding and forgiveness.

On the morning of April 8, 2003, nearly 100 reporters and cameramen were in their second day of covering the firefight from balconies at the Palestine, on the east bank of the Tigris. They felt reasonably safe, assuming American soldiers on the west bank knew the hotel was the main base of operations for the foreign news media in Baghdad.

The soldiers, locked in battle and cut off from news reports for the previous three weeks, had never heard of the Palestine Hotel. Under withering fire from Iraqi soldiers and militiamen, they were desperately searching for an enemy "spotter" in a high-rise directing mortar attacks against their Abrams tanks.

When Gibson's tank gunner noticed a man with binoculars on a balcony across the river, he and other soldiers believed they had their spotter. With permission from his superiors, Gibson ordered the gunner to fire.

A single high-explosive round slammed into the side of the hotel on the 14th floor, nearly severing Couso's left leg. Couso, a cameraman for Spain's Telecinco network, and Taras Protsyuk, a Ukrainian-born Reuters TV cameraman, died of their wounds.

People on both sides of the Tigris that day experienced the same event, yet came away with contradictory conclusions about intent and culpability. Even with the passage of time, all of them -- and their families -- still live with the consequences, and some still feel aggrieved.

For Couso's family, their legal recourse is all but exhausted, but they cling to Couso's memory and the hope they will someday see justice.

Even now, Permuy said, it is difficult to get out of bed every morning and put on her eye makeup. At 62, a mother of five, she must help raise two young grandsons who lost their father.

"My life is destroyed," she said, surrounded by the low flames of the candles. "I will fight for justice for Jose until the day I die.... I want to see those soldiers in the dock."

For the soldiers, pride in their battlefield accomplishments is tinged by conflicting feelings of sorrow and regret. They were promoted and awarded medals for their combat service, yet feel they were made scapegoats by people who don't comprehend the chaos and complexity of modern urban warfare.

Gibson, stationed at Ft. Knox, Ky., said he had been stung by Couso family contentions that his unit targeted journalists, and by their lawsuit accusing him and two officers of war crimes and murder. His wife received threatening phone calls after the incident, he said.

"I think about it constantly -- it's always with me," Gibson said. "This has been a very emotional subject the past three years for my family and I. I felt really bad about it when it happened. I still feel bad."

Gibson and the officers lived for five months under the threat of arrest until Spanish courts dismissed a criminal warrant last month.

"We didn't purposely target those gentlemen," he said. "My prayers are still with the [Couso] family, now and forever."

When Gibson was 7, his mother moved the family from North Philadelphia to Virginia to escape gang and drug violence. He decided to make a career of the Army, where he has served almost 19 years. Today, at 41, he is a father of three.

Beyond the devastation to the soldiers and the journalists' families, the incident created an international uproar. An investigation by the Committee to Protect Journalists concluded that the attack, while not deliberate, was avoidable. A 2003 Pentagon investigation cleared U.S. soldiers of wrongdoing and expressed sympathy for the cameramen's families.

The Couso family and many reporters at the Palestine refuse to believe that the world's most technologically advanced army was unaware of an internationally known hotel. The Telecinco network produced a documentary, "Hotel Palestine: Killing the Witness," in which one of its journalists -- who was with Couso when he died -- suggested that the soldiers fired on the hotel to eliminate witnesses to their advance across the bridge.

"The Americans needed there not to be images, in case it went badly," Telecinco correspondent Jon Sistiaga, 38, said in an interview in Madrid.

For the armored brigade that fired on the hotel, the incident was a painful coda to its dramatic capture of the capital after two "thunder runs," or armored strikes. In detailed interviews, commanders and soldiers described a series of fast-moving events during heavy fighting on the west bank of the Tigris that morning.

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