By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 23, 2006
A federal judge ruled yesterday that Iran is responsible for the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing and ordered that the government pay $254 million to the families of 17 Americans who died in the attack in Saudi Arabia.
Whether the families of the dead U.S. servicemen and women will ever receive that money remains in question. Iran has refused to participate in the case and insists it has no connection to the bombing. The families' law firm plans to try to track down Iranian government assets in countries around the world and claim them to collect the damages.
Nineteen people died in June 1996 when a truck bomb blew up the tower-style dormitory for U.S. Air Force pilots and staff. U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth's ruling yesterday was the first time an American court found that Iranian government agencies and senior ministers financed and directed the bombing by a militant Saudi wing of the Islamist terrorist group Hezbollah.
"The totality of the evidence at trial . . . firmly establishes that the Khobar Towers bombing was planned, funded, and sponsored by senior leadership in the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran," Lamberth wrote. "The defendants' conduct in facilitating, financing, and providing material support to bring about this attack was intentional, extreme, and outrageous."
Lamberth's decision in the lawsuit, which was filed in 2002 by the families of 17 victims, reverses a lower magistrate judge who said evidence linking the Iranian government to the bombing was not convincing.
Lamberth said the leading experts on Hezbollah, a Shiite militant group based in Lebanon, presented "overwhelming" evidence that the Iranian military worked with Saudi Hezbollah members to execute the attack, and the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security provided money, plans and maps to help carry out the bombing. Six Hezbollah members captured after the attacks implicated Iranian officials.
Shale D. Stiller, a DLA Piper attorney for the families, said the ruling is important because it provides those who lost loved ones in a traumatic event -- a terrorist attack -- with some sense of vindication. Two couples involved in the case lost their only child, and one of those parents told the court: "We lost our only child. We'll never have grandchildren. It's like our whole lives are gone."
The timing of the ruling comes as the Bush administration resists recommendations that it engage in diplomatic talks with Iran. The Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan panel appointed by Congress, urged the administration to enlist Iran's help in stabilizing Iraq and the Middle East.
"There were a lot of rumors that the State Department did not want this case to proceed because they ultimately want to have a rapprochement with Iran," Stiller said. "I can't say that's an unreasonable view in overall foreign policy. But from the point of view of the 17 families victimized here, they needed some finding of retribution."
Lamberth applauded the families for helping discourage future terrorists.
"This Court takes note of plaintiffs' courage and steadfastness in pursuing this litigation and their efforts to take action to deter more tragic suffering of innocent Americans at the hands of terrorists," the judge wrote. "Their efforts are to be commended."