BAGHDAD, Iraq -- When troops from the 101st Airborne landed on an island in a dawn raid for insurgents, they encountered shoeless men, women, sheep, bags of raw wool, a pistol and a smattering of Kalashnikovs, according to testimony yesterday during a hearing for soldiers accused of murdering three Iraqis on May 9.
"This surprised you, right?" prosecutor William Fischbach asked Spc. Micah Bivens on cross-examination. "You thought you were going to go in there guns blazing, and you came up with a dry hole." Bivens agreed.
But that lack of resistance, according to prosecutors, didn't stop four U.S. soldiers from shooting three unarmed Iraqi detainees in a staged escape attempt.
One witness from the airborne division's 3rd Brigade testified that he watched as the accused fired on three prisoners hurrying toward "a tractor, cow, couple of sheep, that was it."
The witness, Cpl. Brandon Helton, told the inquiry that when he arrived at the house where the detainees were being 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."
The bloodshed near Samarra is at the center of a hearing to decide whether the four soldiers will face a court-martial and possible death sentence for the slayings and 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, has led to a military investigation of brigade commander Col. Michael Steele. Yesterday, Sgt. Armando Acevedo, team leader of Company C, said he heard three radio transmissions related to the detainees. 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." In the third transmission, Acevedo said, he heard 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.
The defendants - Pfc. Corey R. Clagett, Spc. William B. Hunsaker, Spc. Juston R. Graber and Girouard - 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 a military base in Tikrit.