- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 24, 2005

An eyewitness to the killing of two Iraqis by Marine Corps 2nd Lt. Ilario Pantano says in a sworn statement that the officer, who has been charged with murder, twice ordered the insurgents to stop in Arabic before opening fire, according to documents obtained by The Washington Times.

Lt. Pantano had told investigators that he fired at the Iraqis after they walked toward him and refused to stop, according to the documents. His platoon had stopped the Iraqis as they left a house where insurgents were making bombs.

“While I took my security post, I heard Lt. Pantano yell stop [in Arabic] directed towards the two Iraqi men searching the vehicle. He yelled stop. Lt. Pantano yelled stop, and then, I heard shots fired,” said the eyewitness, a Navy corpsman in Lt. Pantano’s platoon, in a sworn statement.

“I quickly turned towards the vehicle, Lt. Pantano’s position, and witnessed the men attempting to flee away from the vehicle away from where Lt. Pantano was standing.”

The sworn statements provided the first inside look at a case that has drawn national attention because of Lt. Pantano’s stellar record and the nature of the enemy that he faced in Iraq. Lt. Pantano has made no public comment since Feb. 1, when the Marine Corps charged him with two counts of premeditated murder. If convicted at a court-martial, he faces the death penalty.

The case has stirred strong emotions within the Corps. Some Marines complain that Lt. Pantano is being unfairly prosecuted for decisions that he made while operating in a hostile neighborhood where coalition forces regularly have come under attack.

A Marine Corps spokesman at Camp Lejeune, N.C., where Lt. Pantano is stationed, has declined to discuss the case’s details. A pretrial hearing will likely be held this spring.

The dead men were unarmed, and no weapons were found in the car that Lt. Pantano’s platoon had been searching, but a military investigation never questioned whether they were insurgents. A Nov. 4 Naval Criminal Investigative Service report, a copy of which was obtained by The Times, says the two Iraqis were buried in a cemetery used by the insurgents as a base and ammo depot.

The report said investigators did not exhume the bodies or obtain documents from a nearby hospital because of “heavy combat operations in the area.”

Lt. Pantano told investigators that after days of ambushes and near-misses, “I felt sure we would be hit” on April 15, 2004, when his platoon went on patrol in Iraq’s violence-filled Sunni Triangle.

“It was later afternoon and would be dark soon,” said Lt. Pantano, a New York City native who volunteered for active duty after the September 11 attacks. “My senses were fully alert as we went on our mission.”

A review of statements by The Times shows that neither the hospital corpsman nor a Marine sergeant at the scene saw the first shots fired. It was the sergeant who two months later complained about the shooting, prompting a Naval Criminal Investigative Service probe.

Lt. Pantano arrived in Iraq in March and remained on combat duty until October during the probe, his civilian attorney, Charles Gittins, has said. He has called the complaining sergeant “disgruntled” because Lt. Pantano removed him from several jobs.

On April 15, Lt. Pantano received a tip that a house near Mahmudiyah was the site of insurgents making improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which have killed scores of American troops.

“As we neared the house, a white sedan pulled away from the target house, and my envelopment squad asked if they should stop it,” Lt. Pantano told investigators. “I told them yes, and they disabled the vehicle with well-aimed gunfire.”

Lt. Pantano ordered the Navy corpsman to handcuff the two men.

“Sometime after that, I received a radio call that the house where these two men had come from contained several mortar aiming stakes, a flare gun, three AK rifles, 10 AK magazines with assault vests and IED making material,” he said.

After hearing the report, Lt. Pantano had the corpsman take the cuffs off the Iraqis. He ordered them to do a more thorough search, pulling out the car seats to ensure that there were no booby traps.

He ordered the corpsman and the Marine sergeant to take up sentry positions to guard against an attack.

The officer said he told the Iraqis to stop talking among themselves as they searched inside the car, their faces blocked from his view.

Lt. Pantano told investigators what happened next:

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

The Marine sergeant, who weeks later accused Lt. Pantano of executing the two men, told investigators that he did not understand why the officer had the Iraqis search the vehicle, because the corpsman already had done a “full search.”

“As soon as I turned my back, Lt. Pantano opened [fire on] them with approximately 45 rounds,” the sergeant said. “After the shooting, Lt. Pantano let everyone know on the [radio] that he was the one that shot. … Me and [the corpsman] were both shocked about what just happened.”

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