- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 20, 2003

From combined dispatches

A senior U.S. officer charged with threatening to kill an Iraqi detainee testified yesterday that he allowed soldiers to beat a suspect and that he fired a gun near the man’s head, but not at him, to save his troops from harm.

His voice quivering with emotion, Lt. Col. Allen B. West said at a military hearing that he was seeking information about a purported plot to kill him and some of the 700 men he commanded and in which he thought the detainee, Yahya Jhodri Hamoody, was involved.

“I felt there was a threat to my soldiers. … If it’s about the life of my men, I’d go through hell with a gasoline can,” said Col. West, who sat erect in the witness stand during cross-examination on the second day of a court-martial hearing.

“I love the Army,” he said, fighting back tears.

The preliminary hearing at the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Division’s headquarters in the northern city of Tikrit was the first known legal proceeding against such a high-ranking U.S. officer in Iraq.

Col. West, 42, is charged with beating Mr. Hamoody, threatening to kill him and firing his gun near the detainee’s head during an interrogation on Aug. 20 at a detention center in Taji, near Baghdad.

“I know the method I used was not the right method,” he said, adding, however, that he felt at the time it was crucial for the safety of his soldiers that he find out about the purported plot.

“If I had to err, I would err on the side of not losing my soldiers,” Col. West said.

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.

Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, said Col. West probably was more worthy of commendation than punishment and was trying to protect his soldiers.

“I think the message if we were to end up punishing someone for doing what it took to protect the soldiers entrusted to his command, it would be the wrong signal,” Mr. Inhofe said at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing with top Army officials.

Col. West, who on several occasions wiped away tears, recalled how, before shipping out for the Iraq war, he had pledged to soldiers’ families that he would ensure the safe return of his men.

“There is not a man here I would not sacrifice my life for,” Col. West said.

The officer admitted that he failed to stop his men from beating Mr. Hamoody and that he threatened to kill the detainee during the interrogation.

Col. West said he then took Mr. Hamoody to a sandbox used to clear weapons, held his head down with one hand and fired one shot in the air and another in the sand.

Col. West said that Mr. Hamoody provided information about a plot and that the planned attack did not materialize.

Col. West was relieved of his command in October.

Several witnesses described Col. West as a popular, confident and competent officer, loved by the men he commanded and respected by Iraqis in the town of Saba al Boor near Taji.

His former driver, Pvt. Michael Johnson, 20, admitted earlier that he and other soldiers had beaten Mr. Hamoody.

Asked how hard the detainee was hit, he said, “We weren’t hitting him as hard as we possibly could.”

Col. West’s civilian lawyer, Neal Puckett, said his client was not contesting the charges, but denies “the criminality of what’s in the charges.”

“One thing we are saying is this is a specific case of self-defense called defense of others,” Mr. Puckett said.

The hearing was expected to conclude yesterday or today. The presiding officer then will decide whether the evidence merits court-martial proceedings and will make a recommendation to the general in command of the 4th Infantry Division. The general will make the final decision on whether to drop the charges, impose administrative punishment or order a court-martial.

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