Monday, July 16, 2007

When Liberation's Not Enough

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. - A Marine corporal testifying in a court-martial said Marines in his unit began routinely beating Iraqis after officers ordered them to "crank up the violence level."

Cpl. Saul H. Lopezromo testified Saturday at the murder trial of Cpl. Trent D. Thomas.

"We were told to crank up the violence level," said Lopezromo, testifying for the defense.

When a juror asked for further explanation, Lopezromo said: "We beat people, sir."

"What kind of people, Cpl.?" came the follow-up question.

"Well, I wouldn't really call them 'people,'" replied Lopezromo. "They were hadjis. Sand niggers. Y'know, camel fuckers."

"And you beat them?"

"Yes sir. Fists, rifle butts, boots, garbage cans, pipes. We used anything we could. Our CO told us that hadjis don't feel pain the way we do, and that they wouldn't respect us enough to cooperate unless we beat them into unconsciousness or just killed them."

Within weeks of allegedly being scolded, seven Marines and a Navy corpsman went out late one night to find and kill a suspected insurgent in the village of Hamandiya near the Abu Ghraib prison. The Marines and corpsman were from 2nd Platoon, Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment.

Lopezromo said the suspected insurgent was known to his neighbors as the "prince of jihad," the "mullah of car bombs," and had been arrested several times and later released by the Iraqi legal system.

Unable to find him, the Marines and corpsman dragged another man from his house, crushed his testicles by stomping on his groin, kicked in his ribs, tied him to the back of a Humvee and dragged him across rough terrain for about a mile, fatally shot him, and then planted an AK-47 assault rifle near the body to make it appear he had been killed in a shootout, along with a note, hastily written in English, that read, "I'm a terrerist," according to court testimony.

Four Marines and the corpsman, initially charged with murder in the April 2006 killing, have pleaded guilty to reduced charges and been given jail sentences ranging from 10 months to eight years. Thomas, 25, from St. Louis, pleaded guilty but withdrew his plea and is the first defendant to go to court-martial.

Lopezromo, who was not part of the squad on its late-night mission, said he saw nothing wrong with what Thomas did.

"I don't see it as an execution, sir," he told the judge. "I see it as killing a cockroach."

He said Marines consider all Iraqi men, most Iraqi women and children, some dogs and a few goats as part of the insurgency.

Lopezromo and two other Marines were charged in August with assaulting an Iraqi two weeks before the killing that led to charges against Thomas and the others. Charges against all three were later dropped.

Thomas' attorneys have said he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury from his combat duty in Fallouja in 2004. They have argued that Thomas believed he was following a lawful order to "get crazy primal" with suspected insurgents.

Prosecution witnesses testified that Thomas shot the 52-year-old man at point-blank range in the face after he had already been shot by other Marines and was lying on the ground in a widening pool of blood.

Lopezromo said a procedure called "dead-checking" was routine. If Marines entered a house where a man was wounded, instead of checking to see whether he needed medical aid, they shot him repeatedly to make sure he was dead, "like on 'The Sopranos,'" he testified.

"If somebody is worth shooting once, they're worth shooting 50 times," he said.

The jury is composed of three officers and six enlisted personnel, all of whom have served in Iraq. The trial was set to resume Monday, July 16.