A Tank Shot and Its Echo

Times Staff Writers

In her tidy living room, Maria Isabel Permuy keeps lighted candles next to photos of her dead son, Jose Couso. Consumed by grief, she believes American soldiers murdered him as he filmed the battle for Baghdad from the Palestine Hotel three years ago this month.

Half a world away, in Kentucky, the commander of the Army tank that fired the fatal round still carries the burden of what happened as he fought to hold the Jumhuriya Bridge over the Tigris River. Sgt. 1st Class Shawn Gibson, a devout Christian, prays for Couso's family, and for understanding and forgiveness.

On the morning of April 8, 2003, nearly 100 reporters and cameramen were in their second day of covering the firefight from balconies at the Palestine, on the east bank of the Tigris. They felt reasonably safe, assuming American soldiers on the west bank knew the hotel was the main base of operations for the foreign news media in Baghdad.

The soldiers, locked in battle and cut off from news reports for the previous three weeks, had never heard of the Palestine Hotel. Under withering fire from Iraqi soldiers and militiamen, they were desperately searching for an enemy "spotter" in a high-rise directing mortar attacks against their Abrams tanks.

When Gibson's tank gunner noticed a man with binoculars on a balcony across the river, he and other soldiers believed they had their spotter. With permission from his superiors, Gibson ordered the gunner to fire.

A single high-explosive round slammed into the side of the hotel on the 14th floor, nearly severing Couso's left leg. Couso, a cameraman for Spain's Telecinco network, and Taras Protsyuk, a Ukrainian-born Reuters TV cameraman, died of their wounds.

People on both sides of the Tigris that day experienced the same event, yet came away with contradictory conclusions about intent and culpability. Even with the passage of time, all of them -- and their families -- still live with the consequences, and some still feel aggrieved.

For Couso's family, their legal recourse is all but exhausted, but they cling to Couso's memory and the hope they will someday see justice.

Even now, Permuy said, it is difficult to get out of bed every morning and put on her eye makeup. At 62, a mother of five, she must help raise two young grandsons who lost their father.

"My life is destroyed," she said, surrounded by the low flames of the candles. "I will fight for justice for Jose until the day I die.... I want to see those soldiers in the dock."

For the soldiers, pride in their battlefield accomplishments is tinged by conflicting feelings of sorrow and regret. They were promoted and awarded medals for their combat service, yet feel they were made scapegoats by people who don't comprehend the chaos and complexity of modern urban warfare.

Gibson, stationed at Ft. Knox, Ky., said he had been stung by Couso family contentions that his unit targeted journalists, and by their lawsuit accusing him and two officers of war crimes and murder. His wife received threatening phone calls after the incident, he said.

"I think about it constantly -- it's always with me," Gibson said. "This has been a very emotional subject the past three years for my family and I. I felt really bad about it when it happened. I still feel bad."

Gibson and the officers lived for five months under the threat of arrest until Spanish courts dismissed a criminal warrant last month.

"We didn't purposely target those gentlemen," he said. "My prayers are still with the [Couso] family, now and forever."

When Gibson was 7, his mother moved the family from North Philadelphia to Virginia to escape gang and drug violence. He decided to make a career of the Army, where he has served almost 19 years. Today, at 41, he is a father of three.

Beyond the devastation to the soldiers and the journalists' families, the incident created an international uproar. An investigation by the Committee to Protect Journalists concluded that the attack, while not deliberate, was avoidable. A 2003 Pentagon investigation cleared U.S. soldiers of wrongdoing and expressed sympathy for the cameramen's families.

The Couso family and many reporters at the Palestine refuse to believe that the world's most technologically advanced army was unaware of an internationally known hotel. The Telecinco network produced a documentary, "Hotel Palestine: Killing the Witness," in which one of its journalists -- who was with Couso when he died -- suggested that the soldiers fired on the hotel to eliminate witnesses to their advance across the bridge.

"The Americans needed there not to be images, in case it went badly," Telecinco correspondent Jon Sistiaga, 38, said in an interview in Madrid.

For the armored brigade that fired on the hotel, the incident was a painful coda to its dramatic capture of the capital after two "thunder runs," or armored strikes. In detailed interviews, commanders and soldiers described a series of fast-moving events during heavy fighting on the west bank of the Tigris that morning.

For them, speculation that they conspired to eliminate witnesses is preposterous. They point out that reporters and TV crews were embedded with the brigade and covered every aspect of the battle.

The soldiers of Assassin Company said they were attacked by mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns from the east bank -- including the riverbank near the Palestine. An Arabic-speaking U.S. intelligence officer was listening in on a captured enemy Motorola radio as an Iraqi spotter, or forward observer, in a high-rise discussed American targets with mortar crews.

Some soldiers, hearing Gibson's radio description of "some kind of optics" -- what turned out to be either Couso's or Protsyuk's TV camera -- assumed it was a tripod-mounted laser targeting device used to direct enemy artillery fire.

The balcony was about a mile away -- too far, Gibson said, for the soldiers to see the "Palestine Hotel" lettering on the building through the smoke of the battle. The brigade commander, Col. David Perkins, had been trying to identify the Palestine that morning -- both before and after it was hit. His men had requested an airstrike against an east bank building, about a mile from the Palestine, from which gunmen had been firing on the tanks. An embedded American TV reporter warned Perkins that the Palestine was on the east bank.

Perkins and the reporter used the journalist's laptop and satellite phone to call and e-mail journalists in Baghdad, Jordan and Qatar, trying to get a description and location for the hotel. Perkins delayed the airstrike; he was unaware that one of the many tank rounds fired across the river that morning had struck the Palestine.

"I grieve for them and their families," Perkins, now a general, said of the cameramen. "But in my heart of hearts, there was no malice intended by the soldiers."

Asked what he would say to the Couso family, Perkins replied: "I can understand that you are upset and angry, and I credit you with the sincerity of your emotions ... you lost loved ones.

"If only you would do that for me -- to say to me: I know you did not do this on purpose."

Permuy said that without more facts, she could only conclude that the death of her son was deliberate. He left behind a widow, Lola Jimenez (who declined to be interviewed), and sons Jaime, 9, and Pepe, 6.

"We are not asking for revenge," Permuy said. "We just want an investigation. We want to know why."

Lt. Col. Barry Venable, a Pentagon spokesman, said there were no plans for another investigation.

The family has mounted a campaign that includes a website, posters, buttons, T-shirts and bumper stickers showing Couso's face and the word asesinado -- murdered. Since May 2003, supporters demonstrate weekly, usually outside the U.S. Embassy in Madrid.

Permuy, retired from a clerical job in Spain's defense ministry, said she was not anti-military. Her husband, Jose Manuel, who died in 1993, was a captain in the Spanish navy. Her father, brother and grandfather were military men. Their portraits hang in her apartment, along with her father's saber and war medals.

The family's lawsuit against the soldiers was dismissed March 8 by Spain's National Court, which ruled that Spanish courts had no jurisdiction. The family has appealed.

Atty. Gen. Candido Conde-Pumpido said the U.S. State Department refused to allow the soldiers to be questioned. The department ultimately provided details of the Pentagon investigation and apologized to the journalists' families.

The attack, while probably negligent, was "not a deliberate, willful act meant to cause death," Conde-Pumpido said.

Couso, 37, Permuy's oldest son, had always wanted to be a journalist. He covered the Persian Gulf War and the conflict in Kosovo. Fearless and jovial, he and Sistiaga were the only Telecinco crew members who did not flee Baghdad before the U.S. invasion. "I can't leave you alone," Sistiaga recalled Couso telling him.

When Couso left for Iraq, his mother said, she feared he would be killed by Iraqis. "You never think that it would be Americans who would kill your son," she said.

The day before Couso died, Sistiaga said, the two journalists watched U.S. soldiers move into position on the west bank of the Tigris. He and Couso shouted and waved, and the soldiers waved back.

"When you've already greeted the soldiers, you have confidence they have seen you," Sistiaga said. "We were sure the coordinates of our hotel had arrived at the Pentagon."

Commanders at the Pentagon, and at U.S. Central Command headquarters in Doha, Qatar, indeed had the coordinates for the hotel. But the information did not filter down to Perkins' 2nd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division (Mechanized). The brigade had not been expected to fight beyond its assigned "area of operations" on the west bank of the Tigris; the east bank was assigned to U.S. Marines. But the Army and Marines could not communicate because of problems with coordinating radio frequencies.

At midmorning on April 8, Couso was on his 14th floor hotel balcony filming tanks on the bridge. Sistiaga had gone to his room on the same floor. He heard an explosion and screams. Sistiaga ran down the corridor, crawled through debris and found Couso on the floor, bloodied and badly wounded; Couso's clavicle was protruding.

"It was the tank, it was the tank," Sistiaga recalled Couso telling him.

Sistiaga thought Couso was delirious. "I was saying, 'Those ... Iraqis!' It did not occur to me it was the Americans."

Sistiaga said he covered Couso's lower torso so that the dying man could not see how badly he had been wounded. He wrapped his belt around Couso's thigh as a tourniquet.

An Iraqi translator and driver helped load Couso onto a mattress. They carried him to an elevator, then flagged down an Iraqi motorist outside. Speeding the wrong way down one-way streets, the man drove them to a hospital overrun with casualties from the day's fighting.

A doctor told Sistiaga that his friend would die unless his leg was amputated. "They told me to decide. A guy you've known, played soccer with, played with his kids, you have to make that decision?" Sistiaga said.

He told the doctor to amputate. Couso survived the surgery but went into cardiac arrest. "He died in my arms," Sistiaga said.

Three years later, Sistiaga still questions why his friend died.

"I understand the fog of war," he said. "But I want to know if this was fog of war or something else."

For Gibson, the passage of time has not begun to erase his sorrow. "What happened that day was a tragedy," he said. Even so, he said, he is proud of his war service, up to and including the events of April 8. He was awarded a Bronze Star and now trains armor crews at Ft. Knox.

Capt. Phillip Wolford, the Assassin commander who gave Gibson permission to fire, was awarded a Silver Star and promoted to major. He is in Kuwait training U.S. soldiers bound for Iraq. The Palestine incident "stays in the back of my mind ... still there, lingering," he said.

"I do understand the family's position, the grief over the loss of a loved one, the feelings of not knowing," he said. But he and his men acted appropriately under difficult conditions, he said.

Perkins, who also earned a Silver Star and now trains multinational forces in Germany, said he often cited the Palestine incident to emphasize the consequences of decisions commanders make in the heat of combat.

"You give orders to people and your actions result in a lot of people dying. We are responsible for people getting killed," Perkins said.

He said he grieves for them all: the two journalists at the Palestine, the Iraqi soldiers and militiamen, and for the unknown numbers of civilians accidentally killed by his brigade.

"I don't think you'd be human if you said it didn't affect you," he said. "It's something you have to live with for the rest of your life."

Wilkinson reported from Madrid and Las Rozas; Zucchino from Philadelphia.

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