Marine Says He Was Held by Rebels
Speaking for the first time since his mysterious disappearance while on duty in Iraq, Marine Cpl. Wassef Ali Hassoun said Monday that he was captured by insurgents and held against his will.
But his appearance in crisp uniform at a Marine Corps base south of Washington failed to dispel questions about his disappearance, which is being investigated by the military.
“I did not desert my post,” the Lebanese-born Marine said at the base at Quantico, Va. “I was captured and held against my will by anti-coalition forces for 19 days. This was a very difficult and challenging time for me.”
Invoking the Marines’ Latin motto meaning “always faithful,” Hassoun said: “I would like to tell all the Marines as well as those others who are serving in Iraq to keep their heads up and spirits high. Once a Marine, always a Marine. Semper fi.”
Hassoun, 24, of West Jordan, Utah, had last been seen with his unit near the turbulent Iraqi city of Fallouja on June 19. He turned up unharmed July 8 at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, the capital of his native Lebanon. It remains unclear how he traveled the 500 miles from Iraq to the neighborhood where his relatives live in Tripoli, Lebanon. Speculation has been rife that his capture was an elaborate hoax.
Lt. Col. David Lapan, a Defense Department spokesman, said the Marine Corps could not confirm or refute Hassoun’s claim. Hassoun did not answer questions during his brief appearance. He was accompanied by a brother, who had arrived from the family’s home in Utah.
When first reported missing from the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, where he served as an interpreter, he was listed as absent without authorization.
On June 27, Arabic-language television showed a videotape of a blindfolded Hassoun, a sword held over his head. At one point during his disappearance, a group claiming to represent his captors announced that he had been beheaded, and that he had been captured after having been lured from his base by a woman. Other radicals said afterward that he had not been killed.
There were reports that Hassoun had promised to leave the U.S. military if spared, but Lapan said Hassoun had shown no interest in leaving. “He has not expressed any reluctance to return to full duty when the time is appropriate,” Lapan said.
Fellow Marines in Iraq said Hassoun went missing after he became upset when he witnessed the death of a comrade hit at close range by a large round, possibly a rocket-propelled grenade.
When he resurfaced July 8, Hassoun contacted U.S. Embassy officials in Beirut and arranged a meeting, but he did not show up at the coffee shop where it was to take place. He called back and met the embassy officials later that day. The Marines have not said whether they have answers to any of the questions surrounding his disappearance. The military is investigating whether the purported kidnapping was a hoax and whether Hassoun deserted his unit.
Hassoun is at Quantico undergoing what the Marines call a “repatriation process,” in which he is not being criminally charged but is being debriefed and given time to recover from his experience, Lapan said.
In coming days, Hassoun will leave Quantico for Camp Lejeune, N.C., his home base, Lapan said. He will continue the repatriation process there, the spokesman said.
“So far, what we have seen in the time here at Quantico has been positive, which is why we feel comfortable that he’s ready to return to Camp Lejeune,” Lapan said.
Lapan added: “At this point, the Marine Corps fully supports Corporal Hassoun in his repatriation process. However, any conclusions about what happened between the time that he disappeared and when he was returned to our control remains to be the focus of both the repatriation process itself and then any investigations that might go on.”
The Naval Criminal Investigative Service is not expected to question Hassoun until his repatriation procedure is completed, the Marine Corps said.
Lapan said the Marine Corps had reviewed Hassoun’s statement before he delivered it and made no changes. Marine officials said that if Hassoun was cleared, it could be weeks or months before he returned to active duty.