Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Friends and military advocates yesterday rallied around a U.S. Army officer who had been charged with assault in the interrogation of an Iraqi who provided critical information about pending attacks on American soldiers.

“He’s getting a bum rap,” retired Army Col. Mike Kryschtal said about his friend, Lt. Col. Allen B. West of the 4th Infantry Division.

The Washington Times reported yesterday that Col. West, desperate to learn information about pending attacks in Iraq, fired his pistol twice into the air to scare the detained Iraqi into talking.

An Army official at the Pentagon confirmed to The Times that Col. West had been charged with one count of aggravated assault. Col. West faces a maximum eight-year prison sentence if convicted at court-martial.

The Army’s public affairs office at the Pentagon referred questions to the 4th Infantry Division’s spokesman in Iraq. The officer did not return phone messages or e-mails yesterday.

It is typical for the military to release a “charge sheet” once criminal counts are filed. An Army official said the 4th Division’s staff judge advocate, who brought the assault charge, had not provided a copy to Army lawyers at the Pentagon.

Col. West’s wife says she has retained an attorney in North Carolina. The attorney did not return a reporter’s phone messages yesterday.

Contacted by e-mail by The Times this week, Col. West said the division’s staff judge advocate had given him a choice: resign and lose all retirement benefits, or face court-martial proceedings.

“Al West is an outstanding officer,” said Col. Kryschtal, who served with Col. West in South Korea in 1995 and 1996. “His actions were consistent with his selfless dedication to duty and the welfare of his soldiers. The fact that he reported this incident speaks to his integrity. He should be commended, not persecuted, for saving the lives of our soldiers.”

News of the charges hit a visceral note with some active and retired soldiers. They questioned the Army’s decision to charge Col. West, a 19-year veteran who says he reaches 20-year retirement this Saturday. The soldiers say their colleagues in Iraq are operating in a dangerous environment where the next step could be their last, as loyalists of Saddam Hussein attack them relentlessly.

“I suspect there is a great deal of sympathy for Colonel West, especially among the combatants in Iraq and among families of soldiers here at home,” said retired Army Lt. Col. Robert Maginnis, who recently toured Iraq and visited 4th Infantry soldiers. “The difficulty that the 4th ID faces is that the enemy is wearing civilian clothes and hiding behind women and children. So when you ask a battalion and company commanders to stop the violence against the Iraqi people and against soldiers, the pressure to use aggressive interrogation techniques seems to be reasonable.”

The Times contacted Col. West in Iraq via e-mail this week. He responded by providing a narration of his actions on Aug. 21 when he questioned the Iraqi in a town north of Tikrit. He went to question the Iraq policeman after an informant said the detainee was involved in deadly ambushes of American soldiers.

“I did not want to expose my soldiers to a possible attack,” he said. “When they told me they were not progressing I decided to go along. I asked for soldiers to accompany me and told them we had to gather information and that it could get ugly.

“I did use my 9 mm weapon to threaten him and fired it twice. Once I fired into the weapons-clearing barrel outside the facility alone, and the next time I did it while having his head close to the barrel. I fired away from him. I stood in between the firing and his person.”

Col. West, an artillery battalion commander, said he reported the incident to his superior officer.

The Army says the aggressive interrogation method constitutes an assault under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Col. West said in an e-mail yesterday, “I really wanted to stay hidden but that is no longer possible. I am now at a critical decision point to resign. I cannot afford to be sent to jail and my daughters never see their daddy again. My family is all I have now.”

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