- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 18, 2003

The Army yesterday opened a hearing in the assault charge against Lt. Col. Allen B. West that could lead to his court-martial.

In an ornate palace in Tikrit once used by ousted Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein, the prosecution called eyewitnesses for the Aug. 20 incident, in which Col. West fired his service revolver twice to scare an Iraqi into providing information about pending attacks.

The officer, dressed in battle camouflage and armed with his service revolver, did not talk to reporters as he entered the palace courtroom. He may testify in his own defense today.

Col. West, 42, a 20-year artillery officer who was stripped of his battalion command, has acknowledged that he broke the military’s rules for interrogating suspected Iraqi insurgents. He told The Washington Times last month that after four subordinates roughed up the Iraqi but failed to get any information, he took the suspect outside a detention facility and fired the shots.

The Army has charged him with aggravated assault and communicating a threat. Col. West threatened to kill the Iraqi, who was a policeman in the town of Saba al Boor, unless he talked. Col. West said the tactic worked in that the Iraqi provided the names of insurgents who planned attacks on his men.

Yesterday’s proceeding, called an Article 32, was presided over by an Army officer who will make a recommendation to Col. West’s commanding officer, Maj. Gen. Ray Odierno, who heads the 4th Infantry Division. The hearing officer can recommend a court-martial, or administrative punishment, or that the charges be dropped.

According to a Reuters dispatch by a reporter at the hearing, the main witness was Pvt. Michael Johnson, Col. West’s driver.

Pvt. Johnson said he and other enlisted soldiers hit the Iraqi to force him to talk.

“We weren’t hitting him as hard as we possibly could,” Reuters quoted Pvt. Johnson as saying. Pvt. Johnson did not testify that Col. West struck the Iraqi.

After the detainee continued to balk, Col. West took him outside. He was forced to lean over into a sandbox that soldiers used to clear their weapons. Col. West then fired his gun into the sand.

The British news agency quoted Neal Puckett, Col. West’s attorney, as saying, “He doesn’t deny doing what is alleged in the charges, but we as a defense team deny the criminality of the charges. Given the circumstances, he hasn’t committed any crimes.”

Mr. Puckett told The Times that the 4th Infantry’s staff judge advocate offered to let Col. West quit the Army or face possible court-martial. Mr. Puckett said he turned down the offer because Col. West would lose retirement benefits for him, his wife and two children.

Since those discussions, Col. West has reached the 20-year mark. If he is convicted at court-martial, he could lose retirement pay and medical benefits. He has offered to subject himself to less-serious administrative punishment and retire at a reduced rank of major.

There are no charges that Col. West assaulted any other detainees.

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