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Army guard unit exorted shop keepers { July 27 2005 }

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Army Probes Guard Unit
Members of a California battalion in Iraq are under investigation for alleged abuse of detainees and extortion of merchants.
By Scott Gold and Rone Tempest
Times Staff Writers

July 27, 2005

A company of the California Army National Guard has been put on restricted duty and its battalion plunged into disarray amid allegations that battalion members mistreated detainees in Iraq and extorted shopkeepers, according to military officials and members of the unit.

Col. David Baldwin, a California state Guard spokesman, confirmed Tuesday that investigations are underway into the allegations of mistreatment of prisoners by members of Fullerton-based Alpha Company of the 1st Battalion of the 184th Infantry Regiment.

The company, made up of roughly 130 soldiers, is deployed at Forward Operating Base Falcon outside Baghdad. It has been put on restricted duty while the Army reviews its performance, Baldwin said.

Baldwin also confirmed the existence of the investigation of the alleged extortion, which involves members of another company in the battalion.

The battalion's commander, Lt. Col. Patrick Frey, has been suspended while the investigation is conducted, Baldwin said.

Soldiers from a third company in the battalion have also been "pulled back to garrison mode," a military official said.

Baldwin declined to discuss the allegations in detail or name the soldiers and officers involved. The "National Guard cannot comment on an ongoing U.S. Army investigation," he said.

Capt. Daniel Markert, commander of the battalion's rear detachment at its Modesto headquarters, said that word of the investigation has begun reaching soldiers' families in California. One family, he said, had called him to report that their "son was in trouble" and to pass along a request from the soldier's attorney to begin obtaining "character statements" on his behalf.

"What we have been told," Markert said, "is that there is an investigation underway involving very serious violations of the Uniform Military Code."

Maj. Gen. William G. Webster Jr., the U.S. commander of military forces in Baghdad, is overseeing the investigation.

"In the eyes of the military, these soldiers are innocent until proven guilty," Task Force Baghdad spokesman Lt. Col. Steve Boylan said in an interview from Baghdad.

The Army's Criminal Investigation Division and other military officials have ordered soldiers not to discuss the investigations, and many of the troops are anxious, according to one member of the battalion who spoke on condition of anonymity.

One high-ranking officer held a meeting with company leaders in recent weeks and declared that "this is us against them," active-duty Army investigators versus part-time "citizen soldiers" from the National Guard said the battalion member.

"There is a lot of fear," a second member of the battalion said. "There is a lot of uncertainty."

Members of the battalion caused a stir last year when several were quoted in a Times story expressing concerns that their training was poor and inadequate. Some soldiers in the battalion blame its current woes on their allegedly poor training.

"This is a battalion that is just rotting," one said. "There is no trust in each other. There is no confidence in leadership."

Boylan said the allegations have nothing to do with the military's efforts to prepare National Guard troops for war.

"It is not a matter of training," he said. "It comes down to a matter of right and wrong."

Among the allegations now under investigation is that at least six soldiers from the battalion took part in a scheme to extort money from Iraqi shopkeepers, apparently in exchange for protection from insurgents.

The payments allegedly exceeded $30,000, two sources said, and were made in U.S. currency, according to one member of the battalion who has been briefed on the investigation. Another soldier said the scheme allegedly was carried out during night patrols in the Baghdad area.

It is unclear whether any soldier has been charged in connection with those allegations.

The military revealed earlier this month that 11 U.S. soldiers have been charged with dereliction of duty in connection with the alleged mistreatment of detainees in Iraq but did not identify their names or unit. Baldwin confirmed on Tuesday that the soldiers are members of Alpha Company of the 1st Battalion of the 184th Infantry Regiment.

Boylan said some of the soldiers were also charged with mistreatment of a person under their control, assault and making a false statement. One soldier was charged with obstruction of justice.

The Army's Criminal Investigation Division will determine whether the soldiers will face court-martial.

Two members of the battalion who spoke on condition of anonymity said that as many as 17 soldiers are now under investigation in connection with the alleged mistreatment of detainees. All but one of the detainees who were allegedly abused have been released from custody.

The alleged abuse took place after an attack by insurgents in June on a Baghdad-area power plant, military officials said. The bulk of the investigation appears to be focused on an incident in which an electric stun gun was used to abuse or torture Iraqi detainees, several sources within the battalion said.

"They did a pretty good job on them," one soldier said.

The use of a stun gun to abuse one detainee a man who had been handcuffed and blindfolded was captured on videotape, one soldier said. A soldier happened upon the tape while using the computer, a member of the battalion said.

Separately, the first sergeant of another of the battalion's companies has been relieved of duty after being accused of mistreating an Iraqi detainee, military officials said. The sergeant's identity could not be confirmed.

Sources within the battalion said the sergeant is accused of shooting a water heater during an interrogation, then turning to an Iraqi detainee and saying: "You're next." The sergeant then held his pistol to the man's head, moved it a few inches to the side and fired, sources said.

The first sergeant holds an important position of authority in a company and is largely responsible for overseeing the preparedness and welfare of the soldiers in the unit "bullets and beans," in the vernacular of the Army.

There are conflicting reports about the status of many of the battalion's soldiers.

One source within the battalion said soldiers from Alpha Company have been removed from standard infantry duties, such as night patrol and convoy protection, and are now restricted to the base and are guarding its gates. Another source offered a different version of the status of those soldiers, saying that while they are restricted to the base, they were merely swapped out of patrol duties as part of a standard rotation.

When members of the battalion complained last year of inadequate preparation and supplies, they cited a shortage of night-vision goggles and little guidance in guarding against insurgents' roadside bombs.

The Army conducted a brief investigation and concluded that the soldiers, while not "finely honed," were being prepared adequately for battle. Army commanders blamed the strife on the government's need to shore up its strained military by turning part-time National Guard soldiers into front-line combat troops.

David Segal, director of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland, said it is possible that the soldiers received inadequate training, but training complaints cannot explain the allegations of widespread misconduct.

"Soldiers who were not trained well still know the difference between right and wrong," he said. "It sounds like it's something beyond insufficient training. I'm inclined to think the problems existed before they were called up for Iraq a more general problem in the culture of the battalion."

The allegations come at a difficult time for the California National Guard, which has become beset with infighting and is being investigated by the state Senate for allegedly "monitoring" a Mother's Day antiwar rally at Sacramento.

Frey, the suspended commander, is a decorated soldier who took command of the battalion last summer, shortly before its deployment.

According to published reports, Frey served as a Marine during the Vietnam War and participated in the evacuation of Saigon. He later served as a U.S. Army lieutenant and a Special Forces officer in the Army Reserve.

He has been lauded by the military in recent months for his outreach efforts in Iraq.

In March, he took some of his soldiers to the southern Baghdad neighborhood of Al-Dora to distribute shoes to poor children.

Gold reported from Houston and Tempest from Sacramento.

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