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Category: International, Violence against Women

The Death of Abeer in Iraq: One Former Soldier Is Sentenced—What of Those in Command?

| May 22, 2009

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Steven Dale Green

A civilian jury has deliberated long hours over the fate of a former Army private in the March 12, 2006 assault and murder of Abeer al-Janabi and her family. His guilt has been determined in federal court. The author argues that it is up to us as citizens to prevent future crimes and protect our soldiers. This is the second of a two-part report on the Paducah, Kentucky trial. 

Former U.S. Army 101st Airborne Private 1st Class Steven Green of Midland, Texas, 24, was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole by the first civilian jury in U.S. history to try a soldier for acts committed during military service. Many across the world have condemned these felonies as war crimes and they opened Green, the shooter, to a possible death sentence. He instead received life without parole, the lesser of the two possibilities, because the jury “hung,” could not reach a unanimous decision on the verdict.

The Paducah, Kentucky federal court jury of nine men and three women had already unanimously found Green guilty on all 16 counts of conspiracy, gang rape of Abeer al-Janabi, felony murder in the killing of her and her family, and arson in the burning of Abeer’s body and their home in Yusumiyah, Iraq.

Rural Western Kentucky people however are libertarian conservative, generally opposed to giving any government the right to kill its citizens, and the kind of Bible Belt Christians who believe in personal redemption. They rarely give death sentences, and when they do those are rarely carried out. (Three people have been executed in Kentucky since 1978.) Pvt. Green moreover had confessed the night of the killings to a sergeant who, to protect the unit, did not report the crime and got Green out the military, out of Iraq. Once in the federal court system, Green had tried to plead guilty twice in exchange for his life but the federal government had twice refused to accept his guilty plea, apparently wanting a show trial. Aware of his confession and attempts to plead guilty, Kentuckians would reliably reject what might be construed as an attempt to turn a capital murder case into a political bargaining chip. The predictable choice for these Kentuckians would therefore have been a quick unanimous vote for life without possibility of parole.

Instead they split. The story of Abeer and her sister Hadeel had visibly touched some members of the jury to the core, and the split indicates that at least one of them, just how many is not yet known, was arguing hard for execution.

Doug Green, the accused only very slightly older brother, had been portrayed by the defense as a terrible bully and had not taken the stand when witnesses drew a picture of young Steve as a bowlegged West Texas kid with absent parents and a mean sibling. Now a slender businessman who looks very much like his brother except for the infinity of pain in quiet eyes, Doug had sat with sometimes trembling hands as the case progressed, the verdict approached, the sentencing came toward a conclusion. He was seen by several reporters to cross to Abeer's relatives to speak to them.

To the al-Janabi relatives and Iraqi official though, who had journeyed 6556 miles to plead that Green be put to death, the refusal of a jury of Kentuckians to kill Green may have seemed to mean that in Americans’ eyes, Iraqi lives were worth less than U.S. lives. Retired Colonel Ann Wright, U.S. Army Reserves, one of three State Department officials to resign in protest to the invasion of Iraq, details murders by soldiers of Iraqi civilians, and states that if punished at all, service people who killed Iraqis in cold blood were given far lighter sentences than those dealt out to U.S. troops who killed fellow soldiers.

Enlisted people moreover are only one dimension. The truly dangerous distortion is at the top, in the command structures. The part that officers played in the killing of the al-Janabi family is obvious only with regard to non-commissioned officers (NCOs). One of the perpetrators acting with Green was Paul Cortez, who had just been approved for sergeant’s stripes and by pretending to “investigate” the crimes immediately after committing them, managed to blame “insurgents.” Steve Green confessed to Sergeant Anthony Yribe only hours after the killings, taking full responsibility, yet Yribe, who had helped Cortez suppress evidence, did not report Green’s confession and engineered an honorable discharge with “antisocial personality disorder” for Green, putting him back in the States and beyond the reach of military law.

At that NCO level, people were punished. The sergeant who covered up, Yribe, got a dishonorable discharge; and Specialist Promotable Cortez got life in prison, but with the possibility of parole. Making a deal with the federal prosecution, in exchange for his testimony against Green, he could be out by 2012.

Back in 2006, Green, 20, constantly said or shouted that he wanted to kill Iraqi civilians, and commissioned officers were alerted. He told one, Lt. Col. Karen Marrs, numerous times. Yet he was given no help beyond a sleeping pill. The officers were not even reprimanded. The U.S. general who set the worst example to the troops in Iraq, numbed young soldiers to the suffering of civilians and brutalized many by involving them in barbarity was meanwhile being promoted to the highest rank.

General Ray Odierno is now Commanding General, Multi-National Force, Iraq. In 2003-04, the year after the United States invaded Iraq, when he was just one of many two-stars rotating in and out with their units, he ordered his 4th Infantry Division to break into private Sunni homes at night, in order to maximize terror, and round up all males who were between the ages of 16 and 60. In FIASCO: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, and The Gamble, General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008, Pulitzer-Prize-winning Thomas Ricks, Pentagon correspondent for the Washington Post, quoted many who admired Odierno for his extraordinary ability to “read” a battlefield, organizational capability and independence, but Ricks also noted Odierno’s brutality in “rounding up tens of thousands” of Iraqi men and boys from their homes in night raids.

Since numerous studies show that a fourth to a third of people in the U.S. still accept the former administration’s assertion that pre-invasion Iraq was involved in 9/11 or linked to al-Qaida, it is worth emphasizing that Osama Bin Laden was Saudi, the pilots of the hijacked planes were Saudi and Egyptian, the al-Qaida hideout was in Afghanistan, the secret service giving help were Pakistani. A secular Sunni, Saddam Hussein had no use for religious Islamic fundamentalists like Bin Laden nor they for him. Al-Qaida, a Middle Eastern terrorist group who were not Iraqis, came to Iraq after the U.S. came, because the U.S. had invaded a Muslim country.

Yet tens of thousands of ordinary Iraqi people., many of them beaten while hooded and bound, awaiting transit, were sent by Odierno by the truckload to Abu Ghraib prison. Formerly Brigadier General and Commander (Abu Ghraib), now Colonel Janis Karpinski estimated that 90 percent of the people there were innocent. According to the detailed report by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, some U.S. soldiers on the staff of the prison sexually humiliated, tortured, sodomized and occasionally killed inmates. The population overflowed the cells and was housed in the yards. Yet Odierno opposed the release of any Iraqis from Abu Ghraib, wanting them held without charge.

He called them Military Aged Males (MAMs). Command attitudes are viral. In 2004, soldiers in Odierno’s 4th Infantry forced zip-tied detainees into the Tigris River. One drowned. In 2006, Col. Michael D. Steele, a decorated combat veteran and brigade commander in Iraq, 101st Airborne, was said to have issued orders to kill all military-aged males in a raid. Four handcuffed detainees were drowned. Generals and intelligence officers saw Odierno’s MAM raids, the abuse and killing of captured Iraqis and the atrocities at Abu Ghraib as a main fuel for the suddenly growing armed resistance to U.S. occupation but did not stop the abuses until the U.S. media found out and alerted the public. Enlisted people very publicly found guilty of killing and torture were thus at the end of a long chain extending from political officials for whom torture was policy; to generals and intelligence offices who watched wholesale abuse without stepping in—and Odierno who treated being “Iraqi and male” as a crime.

Apart from Karpinski’s demotion to colonel, no higher ups were punished, only enlisted people. Meanwhile, in toppling the Iraqi government, the U.S. government had not sent sufficient troops to maintain order, so Iraq descended into a sectarian bloodbath. At first using homemade bombs (IED stands for improvised explosive device), they were also fighting feverishly to get Americans out of their country. By 2005, 60 percent of the American people favored withdrawal. By early 2006, according to Ricks, most top U.S. military officers had concluded that even though U.S. politicians kept redefining “winning,” the war was unwinnable and swift U.S. withdrawal from Iraq was imperative. Even Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was on board. The table was set for getting out of Iraq.

Unfortunately for the al-Janabis who were killed in March 2006, the will of the U.S. people was overridden. Instead of withdrawal, a retired four-star general, former Army Vice Chief of Staff John (“Jack”) Keane and two minor generals, Odierno and Gen. David E. Petraeus worked the back channels of the White House, took command and engineered a Surge of 30,000 “extra” troops. With Petraeus, who had authored the Army’s counterinsurgency manual, serving as Commanding General, MNFI , troops were no longer taught to get the “bad guys” at all costs but instead to protect the civilian population even if it meant letting the bad guys go. His plan was to bring in a Surge, secure Baghdad neighborhoods, pay the Sunni to turn on foreign al-Qaida fighters, then get the Shia-dominated government to absorb the Sunni troops so they would not constitute an independent force.

Having for three years been ordered to help the Shia-backed government battle Sunnis, U.S. troops were therefore sent to protect Sunni neighborhoods as U.S. commanders began bankrolling a 100,000-person Sunni army. Troops in other words were ordered to defend those they had previously been told to kill. These Surge troops were not actually “extra,” either; they were soldiers kept on extended duty or ordered back for third and fourth tours, with insufficient “dwell” time in the States to cope with the huge increase in PTSD rates, let alone prevent it, and in a permanent war. Since the Shia would not let the Sunni troops into the national military in any numbers, Iraq soon had three opposed militaries—the Kurdish Peshmerga, the Shia government military and the new U.S. funded Sunni army—capable of taking the Middle East down a black hole.

Long troop stays and multiple deployments became the order of the day, with no end in sight. (Green in 2006 had been on his first tour and there for only five months before going berserk, and Army studies and surveys show that multiple deployments and long stays contribute to higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and “marital problems” which include the savage beating and killing of military spouses.)

Suicides by U.S. troops, have soared. U.S. troops are also killing other U.S. troops. During Green’s May 2009 jury trial, Sgt. John M. Russell, 44, of Sherman, Texas, in Iraq as a communications specialist with the 54th Engineer Battalion, shot seven U.S. soldiers, killing five. On his third tour of duty, Russell was only a few weeks from his scheduled return to the States. If his rampage had been delayed even slightly it might have happened in a U.S. civilian community. As it was, it took the lives of everyone from a 19-year-old Army private to a 52-year-old Navy commander.

Major General David Perkins, a spokesman for the military in Iraq said that the Army had handled the case appropriately. From The New York Times:

“The tools were all being used,” General Perkins said. “They thought that he needed a higher level of care than the unit could provide, so they sent him to the clinic. I mean, you see, all the kind of things that we’re taught to do were in place.” 

Lt. Col. Edward Brusher, the deputy director of behavioral health proponency for the surgeon general, said in March that there was one provider for 640 service members in Iraq.

“There are currently enough behavioral health providers,” Colonel Brusher said.

(One wonders, though, about their efficacy. Russell was at a mental health facility when he shot the others. Seen as dangerous he had been forced to surrender his personal weapon, but weapons are not hard to come by in Iraq.)

The source of trouble though is higher. As Petraeus took command of the multinational forces in Iraq, Odierno became his second in command. As Petraeus took Central Command of the entire Middle Eastern theater, Odierno became supreme commander of the U.S. military in Iraq. Apparently having undergone a complete strategic change of heart because he did not want to “lose,” Odierno was in the catbird’s seat. Dedication to the U.S. military can be life-long, and most warriors are honorable and controlled. If the initial cover-up of Steve Green’s crime is an indication however, for every outrage that has surfaced, more remain hidden. Those generals who create the situations that lead to MAM round-ups, or detainee abuse and torture, or the cold-blooded killing of civilians, or domestic violence by returning troops, or soldier suicide and armed troops turning on each other are left unpunished, even promoted to the military’s top rank.

At the pinnacle of democracy’s chain of command however are citizens largely unaware of their own clout. Power is only lent to presidents and the Congress, which in turn create, head, monitor and can restructure the military. If activated, the real power in the United States might have saved Steven Green from himself; could have saved Qassim, Fakhrira, Abeer and Hadeel from Steven Green; and may still save countless others.

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