- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Retired Marines set up a security watch yesterday around the North Carolina home of accused 2nd Lt. Ilario Pantano, after a Pakistan-connected Web site depicted a beheading of the Marine Corps officer.

“It’s a show of solidarity for Pantano,” Charles Gittins, his civilian attorney, said of the former Marine volunteers.

Mr. Gittins said Lt. Pantano has been charged unfairly with premeditated murder by the Corps at Camp Lejeune, N.C., arguing that he killed two Iraqi insurgents in self-defense.

Lt. Pantano reported the beheading on the Web site to the local sheriff, who is investigating.

Mr. Gittins also said the FBI has opened an investigation after a Web site established by the officer’s mother was shut down by repeated cyberattacks that might have come from Pakistan.

The Web site, www.defendthedefenders.org, was set up by Merry K. Gregory Pantano to explain her son’s case and his life story and to raise money for his criminal defense. The site crashed several times Tuesday and yesterday.

An FBI official in North Carolina had no immediate comment last night. Mr. Gittins said he spoke with a special agent assigned to the investigation.

The attorney said a check of who set up the beheading site shows that it was created in Pakistan. It has an address similar to defendthedefenders.org.

The Marine Corps last week announced that Lt. Pantano, the 33-year-old married father of two sons, had been charged Feb. 1 in the deaths of two Iraqis.

The official charge sheet accuses him of premeditated murder, which, if he is convicted at a court-martial, could bring a penalty of death.

He also is charged with destruction of property for damaging the Iraqis’ sport utility vehicle. Mr. Gittins said his client smashed the vehicle so other insurgents could not use it.

The shooting occurred April 15 in the town of Mahmudiyah, south of Baghdad. It was a particularly bloody time for Marines based near Fallujah, with daily insurgent attacks. Marines had to cease their assault on terrorists in Fallujah when politicians in Baghdad protested the mission, a move that allowed the enemy to continue using the town as a base to launch attacks.

Lt. Pantano led a fast-reaction platoon. On that night, he received orders to raid a house thought to hold insurgents and an arms cache. The Marines discovered the cache, which included bomb-making equipment. They apprehended two Iraqis trying to flee.

Mr. Gittins said Lt. Pantano had the two search the vehicle in case it was booby-trapped. At that point, the men started talking with each other in Arabic and then came at him. The officer warned them in Arabic to stop and then emptied his M-16.

“After the killing, the number of attacks in that area went down to almost zero,” Mr. Gittins said.

In an environment where the next person encountered on the street could be a killer, troops in Iraq say that they never know when an insurgent will attack them and that they must act within seconds or risk death.

The Marine command at Camp Lejeune has refused to discuss details of the case. The prosecution’s version of events would come out at a pretrial Article 32 hearing, which has not been scheduled. After the hearing, broadly equivalent to a grand jury case in the civilian justice system, an investigative officer decides whether to recommend a court-martial or to dismiss the charges.

Mr. Gittins said his client shot the insurgents many times, following Marine training to use full force. The two men were not armed.

He said that the bodies were buried quickly and that no thorough autopsy, which would provide details of entry and exit wounds, was performed.

He said Lt. Pantano’s military defense team at Camp Lejeune has requested command permission to take a combat camera team to Iraq and further investigate the case.

Mr. Gittins said the complaint against Lt. Pantano was lodged by a “disgruntled” sergeant who has been removed from two division jobs. He said statements from platoon members support Lt. Pantano’s version of events.

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