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Soldiers forced iraqis off bridge told to cover up { July 30 2004 }

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Soldiers who forced Iraqis off bridge were told to cover up actions, Army commanders testify

By Robert Weller
11:44 p.m. July 30, 2004

FORT CARSON, Colo. Soldiers who forced two Iraqi civilians off a bridge as punishment for missing curfew were told to cover up the incident, according to three Army commanders.

The Iraqis jumped into the Tigris River, where their family members say one of them drowned. The commanders, however, insisted no one died and said soldiers saw the civilians getting out of the water safely.

The commanders, under immunity, testified Friday on the third and final day of a hearing to determine whether three soldiers will be court-martialed.

Capt. Matthew Cunningham said soldiers under his command admitted responsibility for the Jan. 3 incident. He said the soldiers told him they had the Iraqis "get wet" and "they wanted to make them miserable a little bit and walk home."

Soldiers, he said, needed non-lethal ways to make their presence felt. Cunningham said it was a bad decision but called the suggestion that anyone drowned a "smear campaign."

Cunningham also testified he and other commanders told the soldiers to clam up because they feared higher-ups would use the incident against them. "We were not covering up anything that injured anybody," he said.

The family of Zaidoun Hassoun, 19, say they will exhume his body to prove he drowned, but the Army's lead investigator in the case said this week that the area has been too dangerous to confirm the death through an autopsy. Marwan Hassoun, a cousin, survived.

Sgt. 1st Class Tracy E. Perkins, 33, and Sgt. Reggie Martinez, 24, are charged with involuntary manslaughter. Spc. Terry Bowman, 21, is charged with assault for allegedly pushing Marwan Hassoun into the water. 1st Lt. Jack M. Saville, 24, also faces an involuntary manslaughter charge; his hearing is set for Sept. 9.

The soldiers are assigned to Fort Carson's 3rd Brigade Combat Team, which is part of the 4th Infantry Division based at Fort Hood, Texas.

The hearing officer, Capt. Robert Ayers, will make a recommendation whether the men should face a court-martial. The four soldiers face 5 years to 26 years in prison if they are convicted.

Defense attorney Capt. Joshua Norris urged a recommendation against manslaughter charges. "No body, no evidence. No case. Nobody's dead," he said.

Besides Cunningham, a company commander in the brigade, Maj. Robert Gwinner and Lt. Col. Nathan Sassaman testified. Gwinner and Sassaman are a deputy battalion commander and battalion commander, respectively.

Gwinner said the cover-up was the result of clash between Sassaman and the brigade's then-commander, Col. Frederick Rudesheim.

Gwinner said Sassaman was concerned the investigation was "a personal vendetta between he and Col. Rudesheim." Gwinner said the brigade commander was jealous of Sassaman because he was aggressive and getting television coverage.

Sassaman said he instructed his deputies to tell the soldiers not to mention anything about the Iraqis. But he said he asked Saville three times if anyone had been hurt and was assured both men had made it to the shore.

"No harm, no foul if those folks walked away," he testified.

As for Rudesheim, Sassaman said only: "We differed in our views on how to prosecute the war." Rudesheim could not reached for comment Friday.

Sassaman also was critical of the investigation.

"They were much more interested in going after Capt. Cunningham, Maj. Gwinner and myself than they were in investigating a body," he said.

He said the security situation was dangerous in Samarra when the incident occurred. He said "Samarra is not the city of the Good Samaritan. It is the Dodge City of 2004."

The mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. troops has become a worldwide scandal, with the military and other agencies investigating several deaths as well as procedures at the Abu Ghraib prison.

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