- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 27, 2005

CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. (AP) - Fellow Marines testified yesterday that an officer who is accused of murder shot two Iraqis in the back and put a sign near the bodies bearing a Marine slogan: “No better friend, no worse enemy.”

The testimony came on the first day of a preliminary hearing for 2nd Lt. Ilario Pantano, 33. He has admitted shooting the two men during a search last April for a terrorist hide-out.

Lt. Pantano has said the shooting was in self-defense.

Lt. Samuel Cunningham testified that after seeing the sign, he told Lt. Pantano to remove it, then called to have the bodies taken away by Iraqi national guardsmen because Pantano’s unit was headed to another assignment.

“I was surprised,” Lt. Cunningham said, using “death card” to describe the sign. “I told him it was inappropriate. … It’s just unprofessional.”

A second Marine - identified only as “Corporal O” - later testified that he helped interrogate the two Iraqi men who had been stopped as they tried to leave a home suspected of being a terrorist hide-out.

“Corporal O,” described as a cook working to be an Arabic linguist, said the men were scared and claimed to be visiting family in the residence. After the shooting, he testified, the men “looked like they were on their knees. They were shot in the backs.”

His appearance on the stand closed the first day of the Article 32 hearing, which began with defense attorneys accusing the investigating officer presiding over the hearing of bias.

The defense wanted Maj. Mark E. Winn to step aside for comments he supposedly made about a civilian defense attorney, but Maj. Winn denied making any such remarks or being biased.

After the hearing, which is equivalent to a grand jury hearing in the civilian court system, Maj. Winn will make a recommendation to the commanding general of the 2nd Marine Division about whether there is enough evidence for a court-martial.

The general then will determine whether to proceed to trial or modify the charges. If convicted of murder at a court-martial, Lt. Pantano could be sentenced to death.

In the April 2004 incident, Lt. Pantano’s unit was ordered to search a house in Mahmudiyah, and stopped Hamaady Kareem and Tahah Ahmead Hanjil as they tried to leave the residence.

According to written charges, Lt. Pantano ordered other troops to remove the suspects’ handcuffs and look away, then shot the pair in the back, vandalized their vehicle and hung the sign.

“Corporal O” testified he was inside the house talking with women and children when the shooting occurred.

He said they confirmed the men’s story that they were visiting relatives, though on cross-examination he said it was common for Iraqis to deny involvement with the insurgency.

In a statement, Lt. Pantano has told investigators the two Iraqis had their backs to him and continued talking to each other despite warnings to be quiet.

“After another time of telling them to be quiet, they quickly pivoted their bodies toward each other. They did this simultaneously, while speaking in muffled Arabic. I thought they were attacking me and I decided to fire my M-16A4 service rifle in self-defense,” the statement said.

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