BAGHDAD — When troops with the 101st Airborne landed on an Iraqi island May 9 in a dawn raid for insurgents, they encountered barefoot men, women, sheep, bags of raw wool, a pistol and a few Kalashnikovs, according to testimony Thursday during a hearing on the deaths of three Iraqis that day.
"This surprised you, right?" prosecutor William Fischbach asked Spc. Micah Bivens on cross-examination. "You thought you were gonna go in there guns blazing and you came up with a dry hole." Bivens agreed.
But that lack of resistance, prosecutors contended, didn't stop four U.S. soldiers, members of a unit whose commander handed out knives as rewards for killing the enemy, from shooting three unarmed Iraqi detainees in a staged escape attempt.
One member of the airborne division's 3rd Brigade testified that he watched as the accused fired on the three prisoners who were hurrying toward "a tractor, cow, couple of sheep, that was it."
The witness, Cpl. Brandon Helton, said that when he arrived at the house where the detainees had been held, the prisoners were "running at full sprint" with their blindfolds down. Helton said the soldiers fired and one detainee "fell flat down and the second one, wherever he got shot, it was kind of like what you'd see in a movie where he spun around and landed on his back." One was spitting up blood, he said.
The bloodshed that May morning, on an island in Tharthar Lake near Samarra, is at the center of a hearing to decide whether the four soldiers will face courts-martial and possible death penalties for the slayings and an alleged attempted cover-up. The accused say the prisoners broke free of plastic handcuffs, stabbed one of the soldiers and were shot trying to escape.
The raid, part of Operation Iron Triangle, has led to a military investigation of brigade commander Col. Michael Steele, who has denied wrongdoing. Investigators have found that Steele handed out knives to U.S. troops as rewards for killing insurgents.
A U.S. Defense Department official has said that two of the accused -- Pfc. Corey R. Claggett and Spc. William B. Hunsaker -- had not yet earned knives from Steele when they boarded the Black Hawk helicopter for the Tharthar raid.
On Thursday, Sgt. Armando Acevedo, team leader of Company C, said he heard three radio transmissions related to the incident. The first said the unit had killed one Iraqi in action and captured three detainees. The second transmission was from a sergeant who said, "We're bringing these detainees back when they should be dead." A voice then instructed to put the men on the helicopter and fly them to base, he testified.
In the third transmission, Acevedo said, he heard defendant Staff Sgt. Raymond L. Girouard say that three more Iraqis had been killed in action. Prosecutors allege that the accused soldiers freed the detainees from their handcuffs, staging an escape attempt to justify shootings.
Girouard, Claggett, Hunsaker and the fourth defendant, Spc. Juston R. Graber, declined to take the stand in what is known as an Article 32 hearing, the military equivalent of a grand jury. The proceeding is being held at the 101st Airborne headquarters near Tikrit.
Bivens, the platoon's medic, testified that he was unaware of any instructions to kill unarmed military-age males, known in military jargon as MAMs. He said he was at a second house when he heard gunshots and he ran to the first house and saw Claggett standing in the doorway. Two of the detainees, whom he had seen alive earlier, were dead, and the third was close to death, he said.
"Two you couldn't mistake then for anything but dead. The third was having a sporadic heart beat," said Bivens, who added that he began triage on the third detainee.
"There was nothing to sustain life.... Pretty much his last few seconds of life."
Bivens said he walked about 100 meters to pick up body bags when he heard another shot. "There's no way he could have been alive considering there was brain on the ground," he said, referring to the third detainee.
Bivens said he checked a wound on Hunsaker, a one-inch cut on his right forearm, about four inches from the wrist. It was "big enough that it could have used stitches," he said. Prosecutors allege that one of the accused stabbed Hunsaker as part of a cover-up.
Paul Bergrin, Claggett's lawyer, said after the hearing that there wasn't enough evidence for a court-martial.
Referring to allegations that Steele encouraged his men to kill military-age males, Bergrin said, "If a full bird colonel, combat veteran, leading troops, gives me that order, I'm going to follow it." But Bergrin would not say whether Steele should be investigated for allegedly handing down such orders.
The hearing is expected to resume today.