Page 5 of 5   <      

'It Looked Weird and Felt Wrong'

That was a lie, Saville later testified. In fact, he had gone out that night with an order from his company commander, Capt. Matthew Cunningham. "I understood that he was directing me and my subordinates to kill certain Iraqis we were seeking that night who were suspected of killing the company commander in our unit," he testified.

Nor was he to take prisoners.

A few hours later, at the end of a series of raids on suspected insurgents in Balad, another soldier in the same company, Staff Sgt. Shane Werst, led an Iraqi into his home, allegedly struck him about 10 times, then shot him at least six times with his M-4 carbine.

"I can't help but feeling like I was part of an execution," Pfc. Nathan Stewart, the other soldier who was there, later testified. The facts of the matter aren't in dispute. Werst then pulled out a handgun, fired it into a wall, and told Stewart to smear the dead man's fingerprints on it.

Charged months later with murder, Werst testified that he acted in self-defense. Werst said he had planted the handgun on the dead man because "I was second-guessing myself." He was acquitted by a military jury.

An Army lawyer recommended that Cunningham be charged with solicitation of murder, involuntary manslaughter and other offenses. But after Werst's acquittal, the Army decided against prosecuting him, and Cunningham left the Army in June 2005.

Saville said he had had discussions with Sassaman about how to mislead Army investigators. But Sassaman received only a written admonishment from Odierno.

Sassaman remained in command for months, an outcome that shocked Poirier, his fellow battalion commander." When you have a battalion commander who leads his staff in rehearsing a story about a murder -- and he's still in command?" Poirier said in April 2005, shortly after he retired from the Army. "That's not right."

Sassaman left the Army about the same time as Poirier. He made his departure defiantly, taking a swipe at Odierno, whose division had been headquartered in one of Hussein's former palaces in Tikrit.

"If I were to do it all over again, I would do the exact same thing, and I've thought about this long and hard," Sassaman testified. "I was taught in the Army to win, and I was trying to win all the way, and I just disagreed -- deeply disagreed -- with my superior commanders on the actions that they thought should be taken with these individuals [charged in the Tigris bridge case]. And you have to understand, the legal community, my senior commanders, were not fighting in the streets of Samarra. They were living in a palace in Tikrit."

This is the second of two articles adapted from the book "Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq," by Thomas E. Ricks. The Penguin Press, New York © 2006.

<                5

© 2006 The Washington Post Company