July 28, 2006
- For more than a month after the killings, Sgt. Lemuel Lemus stuck to his story.
"Proper escalation of force was used," he told an investigator, describing how members of his unit shot and killed three Iraqi prisoners who had lashed out at their captors and tried to escape after a raid northwest of Baghdad on May 9.
Then, on June 15, Sergeant Lemus offered a new and much darker account.
In a lengthy sworn statement, he said he had witnessed a deliberate plot by his fellow soldiers to kill the three handcuffed Iraqis and a cover-up in which one soldier cut another to bolster their story. The squad leader threatened to kill anyone who talked. Later, one guilt-stricken soldier complained of nightmares and "couldnít stop talking" about what happened, Sergeant Lemus said.
As with similar cases being investigated in Iraq, Sergeant Lemusís narrative has raised questions about the rules under which American troops operate and the possible culpability of commanders. Four soldiers have been charged with premeditated murder in the case. Lawyers for two of them, who dispute Sergeant Lemusís account, say the soldiers were given an order by a decorated colonel on the day in question to "kill all military-age men" they encountered.
Many questions remain about the case, which is scheduled for an Article 32 hearing on Tuesday in Iraq. But whatever the truth about that day, Sergeant Lemusís sworn statement ó which was obtained by The New York Times ó provides an extraordinary window into the pressures American soldiers face in Iraq, where wartime chaos and the imperative of loyalty often complicate questions of right and wrong.
When investigators asked why he did not try to stop the other soldiers from carrying out the killings, Sergeant Lemus ó who has not been charged in the case ó said simply that he was afraid of being called a coward. He stayed quiet, he said, because of "peer pressure, and I have to be loyal to the squad."
The mission that led to the killings started at dawn on May 9, when soldiers with the Third Brigade Combat Team of the 101st Airborne Division landed in a remote area near a former chemical plant not far from Samarra, according to legal documents and lawyers for the accused soldiers. It was the site of a suspected insurgent training camp and was considered extremely dangerous.
Just before leaving, the soldiers had been given an order to "kill all military-age men" at the site by a colonel and a captain, said Paul Bergrin and Michael Waddington, the lawyers who are disputing Sergeant Lemusís account. Military officials in Baghdad have declined to comment on whether such an order, which would have been a violation of the law of war, might have been given.
The colonel, Michael Steele, is the brigade commander. He led the 1993 mission in Somalia made famous by the book and movie "Black Hawk Down."
The two lawyers say Colonel Steele has indicated that he will not testify at the Article 32 hearing ó the military equivalent of a grand jury hearing ó or answer any questions about the case. Calls and e-mail messages to a civilian lawyer said to be representing Colonel Steele were not returned.
It is very rare for any commanding officer to refuse to testify at any stage of a court-martial proceeding, said Gary D. Solis, a former military judge and prosecutor who teaches the law of war at Georgetown University.
During the raid, the soldiers discovered three Iraqi men hiding in a house, who were using women and children to shield themselves, Sergeant Lemus said in his statement. The soldiers separated out the men, blindfolded them and bound their hands with plastic "zip ties," restraints that are not as strong as the plastic flex cuffs often used in Iraq.
Then, Sergeant Lemus told investigators, his squad leader, Staff Sgt. Raymond L. Girouard, was told by another sergeant over the radio, "The detainees should have been killed."
The man accused of making that remark, First Sgt. Eric J. Geressy, has denied it. In his own sworn statement, he told an investigator that during the radio call, "I was wondering why they did not kill the enemy during contact." But he added, "At no point did I ever try to put any idea into those soldiersí heads to execute or do any harm to the detainees."
Sergeant Lemus gave investigators the following account of what happened next: About 10 minutes later, the squad leader gathered Sergeant Lemus and three other soldiers in a house nearby, telling them to "bring it in close" so he could talk quietly to them. Sergeant Girouard spoke in a "low-toned voice" and "talked with his hands," making clear he was going to kill the three Iraqis.
"I didnít like the idea, so I walked toward the door," Sergeant Lemus said in his statement. "He looked around at everyone and asked if anyone else had an issue or a problem." No one spoke.
Soon afterward, Sergeant Lemus recounted, he was standing near the landing zone when he heard shouts and bursts of gunfire. He saw the detainees running and then falling to the ground. He walked back to the scene and asked Sergeant Girouard what happened.
"But he couldnít answer," Sergeant Lemus said. "He just looked at the bodies and had this frozen look on his face. I asked him where my guys were, and he stuttered that they were in the building," getting first aid.
Sergeant Girouard has been charged with premeditated murder, a capital offense, as have three other soldiers: Specialist William B. Hunsaker, Pfc. Corey R. Clagett and Specialist Juston R. Graber. Private Clagett and Specialist Hunsaker are accused of actually shooting the prisoners.
Mr. Bergrin, the lawyer who represents Private Clagett, and Mr. Waddington, who represents Specialist Hunsaker, dispute Sergeant Lemusís account. They say the prisoners broke free as two soldiers were fixing the zip ties, which were coming loose. They say the prisoners stabbed Specialist Hunsaker and punched Private Clagett before trying to flee.
But in his statement, Sergeant Lemus said he heard from the accused soldiers that it was Sergeant Girouard who cut Specialist Hunsaker in an effort to make the stabbing story sound plausible. He believed it, Sergeant Lemus said, because "they both have Ranger school backgrounds and they are pretty close friends," and he added, "They would always talk about the French Foreign Legion and renegade mercenaries running around from country to country."
Three days later, Private Clagett "told me he couldnít stop thinking about it," Sergeant Lemus recalled. The private asked how Sergeant Lemus had responded to seeing dead bodies and shooting the enemy during his time in Iraq.
"I told him it was all right that he felt like that," Sergeant Lemus said. "He was really stressed because when he slept the few hours he did, he dreamed about it over and over."
Two initial investigations of the killings by commanders found no wrongdoing. It is not clear who eventually came forward to tell commanders that there was another version of what happened on May 9.
At one point, Sergeant Lemus said in his statement, Sergeant Girouard gathered the men who had been present before the killing and told them "to be loyal and not to go bragging or spreading rumors" about what had happened. Sergeant Girouard added that "if he found out who told anything about it he would find that person after he got out of jail and kill him or her."
Sergeant Lemus said he laughed off the threat at the time. But there may have been other threats. In addition to murder, the four accused soldiers are charged with threatening to kill Pfc. Bradley L. Mason, one of the men in the squad, if he told what he knew about the shootings.
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company