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5 Calif. Guardsmen Face Charges of Abusing Iraqis

Times Staff Writer

Five California Army National Guard soldiers, all members of a Fullerton-based company, will face courts-martial on charges that they participated in or were complicit in the abuse of Iraqi detainees, according to military officials.

Lt. Col. Cliff Kent, a spokesman for the 3rd Infantry Division in Iraq, said the military has been conducting an investigation into allegations against 12 soldiers implicated in the alleged abuse.

Investigations have been completed in seven of the cases, Kent said, leading to the five courts-martial. In the remaining five cases, investigations are continuing. A determination about whether those soldiers also will face courts-martial is expected in the coming weeks.

Of the courts-martial ordered so far, two are considered minor, Kent said, and will be heard by “summary court-martial,” similar to a magistrate’s handling of low-level offenses. One will be sent to a “special court-martial,” which is considered a mid-level court, Kent said, and two to “general court-martial,” the highest trial level in military law.

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Kent did not identify the soldiers who will face courtsmartial. All are members of Alpha Company of the 1st Battalion of the National Guard’s 184th Infantry Regiment. The company, with roughly 130 soldiers, is based in Fullerton. The battalion headquarters is in Modesto.

Members of the battalion who spoke on condition of anonymity said three of the five facing courts-martial are sergeants. Their hearings will take place in Iraq, Kent said. No schedule has been set.

The courts-martial mark the latest development in a multi-pronged investigation into allegations of misconduct among soldiers who are members of the battalion.

The investigation already has led to the battalion’s charismatic and controversial commander, Lt. Col. Patrick Frey, being suspended from duty. And the entire Alpha Company was removed from combat and patrol duties, and confined to a military base this summer.

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Two platoons have since been allowed to return to more expansive duties, Kent said, though some soldiers remain restricted to the base, known as Forward Operating Base Falcon.

A first sergeant also was relieved of duty after he was accused of pretending to execute an Iraqi detainee by firing his pistol next to the detainee’s temple.

In addition to the charges that have led to the courtsmartial, Army officials have investigated allegations that solders from the battalion charged unauthorized “rent” to Iraqi-owned businesses operating on an Army base, and forced Iraqi civilians to move a dead dog from the middle of a road because they feared the carcass could contain a makeshift bomb.

The current charges appear to focus on alleged abuse that took place in March at a Baghdad-area power plant.

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One soldier in the battalion, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to discuss operations publicly, said the plant is “a very important facility in our sector, which the bad guys would very much like to blow up.”

A portion of the alleged abuse -- the use of a stun gun on a handcuffed and blindfolded Iraqi -- was captured on videotape, soldiers in the battalion have said.

A soldier who was not involved stumbled across the footage while sifting through files on a laptop computer and brought the tape to his commanders, sparking that portion of the investigation.

Military officials can impose a wide range of penalties on those found guilty in court-martial proceedings.

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Summary courts-martial, the low-level proceedings, typically bring punishments of hard labor, forfeiture of pay, a reduction in pay grade or a short period of confinement.

Special courts-martial, the mid-level proceedings, typically bring similar punishments, with longer periods of labor or confinement. They also can bring bad-conduct discharges.

General courts-martial can bring severe penalties, including lengthy periods of confinement, reprimands, forfeiture of all pay, fines and punitive discharges.

The 1st Battalion of the 184th Infantry Regiment caused a stir last year when some of its soldiers went public with concerns that their training for Iraq, conducted at the Ft. Bliss military complex that straddles the Texas-New Mexico border, was sloppy and inadequate.

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Soldiers said they had received little “theater-specific” training, such as instruction for protecting themselves against improvised roadside bombs that often are used by insurgents to target American forces.

The soldiers’ decision to discuss their concerns publicly helped focus attention on the difficulties that the Bush administration has faced in trying to staff the Iraq war in large part with part-time “citizen soldiers” from the National Guard and the reserves whose duties traditionally had been limited largely to domestic operations such as disaster recovery.

Today, members of the battalion are voicing concerns -- on Internet sites and in e-mails to relatives and friends back home -- that they have been victimized by a small group of troublemakers.

“A handful of soldiers have disgraced the entire unit,” one soldier wrote from Iraq in an e-mail sent to family and friends in California. “They are going to pay for it, but they have sullied the names and reputations of some men whom I regard with the utmost respect and loyalty.”

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The military, meanwhile, has sought to downplay the problems facing the battalion.

Kent, for instance, referred to the actions of the soldiers facing courts-martial as “suspected terrorist abuse” -- though the military has acknowledged that all but one of the detainees involved in the abuse were released from custody.


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