Officers Testify of Warnings Before Tent Attack
Two military officers testified Monday that a man resembling Army Sgt. Asan Akbar warned that their unit was under attack just moments before grenades exploded in headquarters tents in Kuwait during the early days of the Iraq war.
The testimony came during the first day of a weeklong preliminary hearing that will determine whether Akbar, a 32-year-old native of Los Angeles, should face a general court-martial this year.
Army prosecutors contend that Akbar struck out at the military by hurling grenades and shooting at soldiers as they fled the burning tents. Two officers were killed and 14 soldiers injured.
But Akbar and his military lawyers are suggesting that the devout Muslim snapped after relentless harassment from his fellow soldiers, who blamed his religion for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Army Maj. Verner Kiernan told of seeing a man fitting Akbar’s description yell, “We’re under attack, sir,” and then hearing a grenade roll across the floor of a command staff tent.
Air Force Capt. Mark Wisher recalled that after explosions sounded around Camp Pennsylvania, a U.S. military campsite about 25 miles from the Iraqi border, a man resembling Akbar came into his tent and shouted, “Sir, we’re under a ground attack.” Moments later, Wisher said, he saw a grenade roll into the tent.
The March 23 attack an hour after midnight shocked a U.S. military already tense from the start of war. But in a deeper sense, the incident tarnished the otherwise highly successful military campaign because of Akbar’s complaints that some soldiers were personalizing the war as being the fault of all Muslims.
Sgt. Patricia Lewis, an equal-opportunity specialist who aided one of the injured, testified that several Muslim soldiers had complained of similar harassment. She added that she later heard that Akbar had “wanted to get even.”
A recommendation on whether Akbar will face a court-martial proceeding is expected next week.
Akbar is charged with two counts of premeditated murder and three counts of attempted murder and could receive a death sentence if convicted.
Akbar sat quietly through much of the testimony, flanked by his four military lawyers.
Wearing a desert camouflage uniform, he often placed his hands across his lap, looked down and appeared to be in deep thought. He did not speak.
An engineer who graduated from UC Davis in 1997, Akbar was part of the 101st Airborne Division, which is based at Ft. Campbell, Ky., and was working in a support battalion assisting in the division’s march from Kuwait toward Iraq.
Army Maj. Hugh Cate, a spokesman for the 101st Airborne, said that despite the “distraction” of the grenade attack, morale among the unit’s soldiers in Iraq remains “very high.”
“The brigade this soldier was in did some incredible things, fought its way into Iraq and now is helping to rebuild that country,” Cate said Monday, just before the hearing began.
He described the time leading up to the grenade attack as “the longest 70 hours of the war.”
“We were getting missiles incoming every night, and then this came in the middle of the night too,” he added.
From the witness stand at Ft. Knox, where the hearing is being held because it offers better security than Ft. Campbell, Akbar’s superiors, including many who were injured, described for the first time in public how their horror turned to anger when they were told that one of their own was suspected in the attack.
Kiernan was in a command staff tent working on the Internet when he heard the explosions next door.
He jumped from his desk, strapped on his service weapon and pulled on his boots. He thought it was a training drill, he said.
But then he saw an “African American male,” whom Army investigators subsequently identified as Akbar, appear at the entry to the tent.
The man told him, “We’re under attack, sir,” Kiernan testified.
Seconds later, he told the hearing, he heard a fragmentation grenade “come popping” along the tent’s plywood floor. The explosion sent shrapnel into vinyl partitions, beds and equipment, and the rear of the tent erupted in flames, he said.
Kiernan, who was not injured in the attack, quickly realized that this was no exercise.
“The whole tent filled up with smoke,” he said.
He said he tried to help Army Maj. Gregory Stone, who was mortally wounded in the neck and abdomen, and comforted him as he was prepared for a helicopter evacuation. Kiernan then began helping to secure the area, searching for the assailant.
Soon, he said, he was told that Akbar had been taken into custody.
“Four grenades were unaccounted for, and he was the last [noncommissioned] officer guarding the grenades,” Kiernan said.
Kiernan said that before the war began, he never heard derogatory terms used by military personnel against Muslims, but that after the war was in full swing, U.S. soldiers commonly referred to Iraqis dismissively as “hajis.”
Wisher testified that he was asleep when the explosions began. He told the hearing that he jumped up, dressed and then saw an “African American” male soldier step into the door of the tent and say, “Sir, we’re under a ground attack.”
Moments later, he said, he watched a grenade roll in.
“It sounded an awful lot like in the movies,” he said. “When a grenade hits the floor, it bounces a little and then rolls.”
The explosion ripped through Wisher’s right arm and shoulder; he also suffered a collapsed lung, a hole in his diaphragm and a lacerated liver.
Wisher said he had never heard soldiers use derogatory terms like “rag head” to refer to Muslims. But he did say that the term was used when he “got some get-well cards from some schoolkids” in the United States.
“I have heard those words before, but not from anybody I worked with or anybody in uniform,” Wisher testified. “This was not a religious war.”
However, Lewis testified that she had often heard soldiers, including officers, use derogatory terms such as “rag head,” “camel jockey” and “Ali Baba” to describe U.S. soldiers who were Muslims, as well as using the terms for Kuwaitis and Iraqis.
“Every now and then, a soldier would come to me and say they were not being treated fairly,” she recalled. “Right before I left Iraq, a soldier said someone was making fun of him because he was praying.”
Other times, she said, Muslims in the military were ridiculed for sprinkling “dirt or dust” on their bodies as part of a religious cleansing ritual.
The harassment was “offensive,” she said. “We shouldn’t tolerate it.”
She added that after the grenade attack she heard that Akbar had “wanted to get even with [his] chain of command.”
“He was upset that they were doing things for religious reasons,” she said, adding that Akbar felt that “we shouldn’t be in the area, and that he didn’t want to be there either.”