'It Looked Weird and Felt Wrong'

By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 24, 2006; A01

From its first days in Iraq in April 2003, the Army's 4th Infantry Division made an impression on soldiers from other units -- the wrong one.

"We slowly drove past 4th Infantry guys looking mean and ugly," recalled Sgt. Kayla Williams, then a military intelligence specialist in the 101st Airborne. "They stood on top of their trucks, their weapons pointed directly at civilians. . . . What could these locals possibly have done? Why was this intimidation necessary? No one explained anything, but it looked weird and felt wrong."

Today, the 4th Infantry and its commander, Maj. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, are best remembered for capturing former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, one of the high points of the U.S. occupation. But in the late summer of 2003, as senior U.S. commanders tried to counter the growing insurgency with indiscriminate cordon-and-sweep operations, the 4th Infantry was known for aggressive tactics that may have appeared to pacify the northern Sunni Triangle in the short term but that, according to numerous Army internal reports and interviews with military commanders, alienated large parts of the population.

The unit, a heavy armored division despite its name, was known for "grabbing whole villages, because combat soldiers [were] unable to figure out who was of value and who was not," according to a subsequent investigation of the 4th Infantry Division's detainee operations by the Army inspector general's office. Its indiscriminate detention of Iraqis filled Abu Ghraib prison, swamped the U.S. interrogation system and overwhelmed the U.S. soldiers guarding the prison.

Lt. Col. David Poirier, who commanded a military police battalion attached to the 4th Infantry Division and was based in Tikrit from June 2003 to March 2004, said the division's approach was indiscriminate. "With the brigade and battalion commanders, it became a philosophy: 'Round up all the military-age males, because we don't know who's good or bad.' " Col. Alan King, a civil affairs officer working at the Coalition Provisional Authority, had a similar impression of the 4th Infantry's approach. "Every male from 16 to 60" that the 4th Infantry could catch was detained, he said. "And when they got out, they were supporters of the insurgency."

The unit's tactics were no accident, given its commanding general, according to his critics. "Odierno, he hammered everyone," said Joseph K. Kellogg Jr., a retired Army general who was at Coalition Provisional Authority, the U.S.-led occupation agency.

But that criticism hasn't hurt Odierno's subsequent career. When he returned to the United States in mid-2004, Odierno was promoted to be the military assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He recently took command over III Corps at Fort Hood, Tex., and is scheduled at the end of this year to return to Iraq to become the No. 2 U.S. commander there, overseeing the day-to-day operations of U.S. forces.

In an interview, Odierno mounted a strenuous defense of his division's performance, and said any implication that "all we did was kill people wantonly and abuse prisoners -- in my opinion, that's totally false."

Odierno said that he had made detainee operations a major focus of his command after it became clear in the summer of 2003 that the division would have to hold prisoners. "That's what bothers me about this" discussion of the 4th Infantry. "I spent so much time on this. It was important to me that we did this right."

Two years ago at a meeting of the Association of the U.S. Army, Odierno explained that his aggressive tactics were born of experience. "We'd go in, do a raid on a house, and we wouldn't search any of the families, and as we were leaving, they would hand weapons from under their dresses to their men, who would shoot at us."

So, he said, "yeah, initially, we probably made some mistakes." But, he continued, "we adapted quickly."

First Combat in Decades

Unlike most Army divisions, the 4th Infantry hadn't been deployed for decades, missing out on Panama, the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan. At its home base of Fort Hood, Tex., it sometimes was mocked as the second team, taking a back seat to its neighbor, the 1st Cavalry Division.

The unit was initially given the role of invading Iraq from the north in spring 2003, but its assignment was changed after the Turkish government declined to permit the movement of U.S. troops through its territory. The 4th Infantry's equipment was shipped to Kuwait, and it entered Iraq from there after the invasion was over.

In mid-April, the division was assigned to relieve the Marines who had briefly occupied Hussein's home town of Tikrit. In language unusual for an officially produced document, the history of the operation produced by the Marines 1st Division is disapproving, even contemptuous, of what it calls the 4th Infantry Division's "very aggressive" posture as the unit came into Iraq.

The history dryly noted that the Marines, "despite some misgivings," turned over the area to the 4th Infantry Division and departed April 21. "Stores that had re-opened quickly closed back up as the people once again evacuated the streets, adjusting to the new security tactics," the final draft of the history reported. "A budding cooperative environment between the citizens and American forces was quickly snuffed out. The new adversarial relationship would become a major source of trouble in the coming months."

In July, a member of a psychological operations team attached to the 4th's artillery brigade, which was known as Task Force Iron Gunner, filed a formal complaint about how its soldiers treated Iraqis.

"Few of the raids and detentions executed by Task Force Iron Gunner have resulted in the capture of any anti-coalition members or the seizure of illegal weapons," wrote the soldier, whose name was blacked out from documents released by the Army.

He placed the blame with the artillery unit's commander, Col. Kevin Stramara. "This team has witnessed the colonel initiate these events." He said detention practices were capricious, sometimes based on the whim of the commander or because more than $100 in Iraqi dinars had been found in someone's possession.

One day in June, the soldier said, a Bradley Fighting Vehicle had opened fire on a house, causing it to burst into flames. In a separate incident, the father of a 12 year-old boy who had been accidentally killed by U.S. forces and then buried was made to dig up the body himself.

In a subsequent sworn statement, the soldier conceded that some of his charges were based on hearsay, but he stood by his bottom line: "My overall feeling of the treatment of the civilian population is negative. I go out to the civilian community about three times a week to communicate with the Iraqi population to get an overall assessment of how the people see us. Through interpretation the Iraqi people ask us why we are so unfair to them."

The Army's investigation found credible explanations for most of the charges. The house was fired on, the investigation concluded, because it had a bunker on its roof that was found to contain mortars and artillery rounds. The dead boy was buried because there was no place to keep his body, and unearthed without U.S. help because the family had asked that there be no U.S. participation.

But the fundamental question of whether the brigade's tactics were misguided wasn't addressed by the investigation.

Another instance of abuse in the 4th Infantry carried no such ambiguity.

On Sept. 11, 2003, a soldier shot handcuffed Iraqi detainee, Obeed Radad, in an isolation cell in a detention center in Camp Packhorse near Tikrit, supposedly when the Iraqi attempted to cross a barbed-wire fence. Radad had turned himself in nine days earlier, after learning that U.S. forces were looking for him. The bullet passed through his forearm and lodged in his stomach.

Eighteen hours later, an Army investigator began to look into the incident, according to an internal Army summary. Maj. Frank Rangel Jr., the executive officer of a military police battalion attached to the 4th Infantry, was assigned to investigate. He didn't believe the soldier's account that Radad was trying to escape.

"I thought the suspect might have committed negligent homicide" and lesser offenses, Rangel said later. Lt. Col. Poirier, Rangel's commanding officer, thought the shooter should be court-martialed. "This soldier had committed murder," Poirier said.

But Odierno overruled that recommendation, and ultimately the soldier was simply discharged from the Army for the good of the service. "I made the decision to dishonorably discharge him because of mitigating circumstances," Odierno said in an interview. "He was a cook, he didn't get proper training, and this detainee was very aggressive, a bad guy."

On Sept. 21, 2003, Odierno issued a memorandum on the treatment of detainees to everyone in his division. "Soldiers will treat all detainees with dignity and respect, and, at the very least, will meet the standards for humane treatment as articulated in international law," he ordered. "While detainees in U.S. custody may be interrogated for intelligence purposes, the use of physical or mental torture, or coercion to compel individuals to provide information, is strictly prohibited. . . . Neither the stresses of combat, nor deep provocation, will justify inhumane treatment."

Some Early Warnings

Yet the abuses continued. A few months later another 4th Infantry soldier, the staff sergeant overseeing the interrogation section at the division's main detainee holding pen in Tikrit, was reprimanded after an Iraqi was beaten with a baton while being questioned.

"These acts could . . . bring extreme discredit upon the U.S. Army," Lt. Col. Conrad Christman, the commander of the 104th Military Intelligence Battalion, warned him in writing on Nov. 6. The incidents of abuse of the detainee, his letter added, "show a lack of supervisory judgment on your part."

The sergeant, whose name was redacted from official documents before they were released, hurled those conclusions back at his chain of command.

"With the exception of myself, all interrogators at the TF IH ICE [Task Force Iron Horse Interrogation Control Element] were, and most remain, inexperienced at actual interrogation," the sergeant wrote. The division's intelligence efforts generally were "cursory," he added, because of "insufficient personnel, time and resources."

Nor had the Army prepared the sergeant and his soldiers for the job they'd been assigned. "Our unit has never trained for detention facility operations because our unit is neither designed nor intended for this mission. . . . [My soldiers] are assigned a mission for which they have not trained, are not manned, are not equipped, are not supplied and . . . cannot effectively accomplish."

What's more, he wrote, the institutional Army hadn't even taken the proper steps to prepare for this kind of war. "To my knowledge, no FM [field manual] covers counterinsurgency interrogation operations."

But most striking from this NCO was a lengthy denunciation of the strategic confusion of those leading the Army in Iraq. "I firmly believe that [name of subordinate soldier redacted in document] took the actions he did, partially, due to his perception of the command climate of the division as a whole." He noted, for example, that division leaders had made comments such as, "They are terrorists, and will be treated as such."

As was occurring elsewhere in Iraq, the sergeant reported signs of U.S. forces practicing a form of hostage taking, detaining family members of suspected insurgents to compel those suspects to surrender.

"Personnel at the ICE regularly see detainees who are, in essence, hostages," he charged. "They are normally arrested by coalition forces because they are family of individuals who have been targeted by a brigade based on accusations that may or may not be true, to be released, supposedly, when and if the targeted individual surrenders to coalition forces."

In fact, he said, the U.S. military tended not to keep its end of the bargain because the detention system was so badly operated: "In reality, these detainees are transferred to Abu Ghraib prison and become lost in the coalition detention system regardless of whether the targeted individual surrenders himself."

This coercive taking of such prisoners had at least the "tacit approval" of senior leaders in the division, he charged, because it had been discussed in front of them at briefings.

The military intelligence commander, Christman, impressed by the staff sergeant's arguments, concluded it would be wrong to fault him for lack of supervision, and so decided against making the written reprimand part of the staff sergeant's permanent record.

A later review by the office of the Army inspector general said interrogators reported "detainees arriving at the cage badly beaten. Many beatings occurred after the detainees were zip-tied by some units in 4ID."

When asked about the report, Odierno said he hadn't read it or been informed of the charge.

Revenge of the Tigris River

The most striking instance of abuse in the 4th Infantry Division occurred shortly after Jan. 2, 2004, when Capt. Eric Paliwoda, an engineering company commander in the division's 3rd Brigade, was killed by a mortar attack while in his command post.

Lt. Col. Nathan Sassaman, the commander of the battalion of which Paliwoda's company was part, held the mortally wounded officer before putting him aboard a medical evacuation helicopter. "When Captain Paliwoda died, it pretty much ruined the war for me," Sassaman said later in sworn testimony.

The death of Paliwoda left the unit in the mood for revenge -- and it knew how to exact it. That chilly January night, soldiers from the unit set out to kill specific Iraqis. About 9:30, a patrol from Alpha Company was stopping drivers outside of Samarra who were violating the curfew. The patrol was led by Lt. Jack Saville.

The first car Saville's men stopped had a family returning from a hospital, where the mother had just given birth. They were told to go home. The second was a city council member. The third was a white pickup truck.

Its two occupants were handcuffed, driven to the Tigris River, and forced from the ledge of a pump house into the river, a drop of about six feet. One of the men, Zaidoun Fadel Hassoun, age 19, drowned, according to the other, Marwan Fadel Hassoun, 23, his cousin.

At first, the soldiers insisted to Army investigators that they had released the men -- without mentioning that they had "released" them into the river. Pressed, they subsequently said they'd seen both men swim to shore and emerge.

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.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company