Tougher stance on crimes of US troops?

The Army and Marines each refers troops to courts-martial for three separate atrocities in Iraq.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Decisions by both the Army and Marines to court-martial troops accused of atrocities in Iraq, announced almost simultaneously on Wednesday, could reflect a new, tougher attitude by the US military in such cases.

A perception in Iraq that US troops convicted of atrocities against Iraqis have received lenient treatment – especially in the notorious Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse case – has led to weakened support for the US-backed government, some analysts say.

"One takes no pleasure in noting that courts-martial in Iraq and Afghanistan seem to be acquitting individuals with unusual frequency," wrote Gary Solis, a former Marine Corps lawyer who teaches the law of war at Georgetown University, in the October issue of Proceedings, the magazine of the independent US Naval Institute.

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Alleged atrocities by US troops in the cities of Haditha and Mahmudiya have outraged many in Iraq. The Mahmudiya case, one of two in which the Army brought charges Wednesday, has prompted Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to question the immunity from Iraqi prosecution given foreign troops under the nation's new constitution.

Mr. Solis detailed numerous detainee-abuse cases in which US troops accused of beating, torturing, or even killing prisoners got no jail time. By contrast, he noted, an Army private convicted of firing a weapon at fellow soldiers without hitting any got 25 years in prison.

None of the troops charged by the Army and Marines on Wednesday has been convicted, so whether any punishment will be more or less harsh than in past cases remains to be seen.

In announcements the services say were not coordinated, the Army's 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky., and the Marine Corps arm of the US Central Command in Tampa, Fla., said charges were being brought against eight soldiers and three marines in three separate cases of alleged atrocities in Iraq.

Detainee case. Four soldiers will face courts-martial on charges of premeditated murder for allegedly killing three Iraqi detainees during a raid on suspected insurgents near Tikrit in May. All four soldiers could receive life sentences if convicted.

Mahmudiya rape and murder case. Four other soldiers accused of raping a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and killing her and three family members in Mahmudiya in March were referred to court-martial. Two of the soldiers, Sgt. Paul Cortez and Pfc. Jesse Spielman, could face the death penalty if convicted. The others could get life in prison.

Steven Green, a former private alleged to be involved in the incident, was discharged from the Army and faces federal murder and rape charges in Kentucky in connection with the incident.

Hamdania kidnap/murder case. Three marines were charged with killing an Iraqi grandfather they'd allegedly kidnapped from his home in Hamdania in April. The three will not face the death penalty. Previously, three other marines were referred for courts-martial in this case, and a Navy corpsman has reached a plea deal with prosecutors.

The near simultaneous decisions by Army Maj. Gen. Thomas Turner, commander of the 101st Airborne, and Marine Corps Lt. Gen. James Mattis was pure coincidence, not coordinated to signal that the US military is getting tougher with troops accused of abusing Iraqis, their services' spokesmen say. "None of this was coordinated between the two services," says Lt. Col. Sean Gibson, a spokesman for General Mattis.

Army Lt. Col. Mark Ballesteros, a Pentagon spokesman, says the "commanders who are making these decisions are doing it because it's the right thing to do, in their minds. The trial process will determine if any wrongdoing has happened."

A lawyer from another military service, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to comment publicly, says an attempt by the Army and Marines or the Pentagon to coordinate charges to influence politics in Iraq would risk violating a ban on "unlawful command influence."

"If a senior civilian leader were to try to coordinate prosecutions for that political purpose, it could contaminate the trial based on a finding of unlawful command influence," this lawyer says.

But the commanders might separately have come to the conclusion that a tougher approach in such cases is needed, the lawyer adds.

Eugene Fidell of the private National Institute of Military Justice says there is "no coordination" between the services on such decisions. But that doesn't mean the military isn't taking a tougher view of such cases because of the political damage to the US and the Iraqi government from past verdicts, he adds. "If you ask me whether some of the cases from a couple of years ago today would be treated the way they were treated then, I would say probably they would be treated more toughly," says Mr. Fidell.

There's nothing improper in that, he adds. "The military justice system ... recognizes the rights of victims in the administration of justice," he says. "Nor is there anything illicit in acknowledging that the Iraqi population has an interest in seeing justice done."

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