By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 5, 2010; A06
Three Navy SEALs are facing courts-martial on charges that they mistreated an Iraqi prisoner suspected in the deaths of four Blackwater security guards whose charred bodies were dragged through the city of Fallujah in 2004.
U.S. military officials have charged one of the SEALs with punching the prisoner, Ahmed Hashim Abed, after he was taken into custody Sept. 1 in Iraq. All three SEALs have been charged with dereliction of duty and lying to Navy investigators to cover up the incident.
The case has prompted an outcry from conservative members of Congress and members of the military’s secretive Special Operations Forces, who say the Navy commandos are innocent. More than 40 members of Congress — nearly all of them Republicans — have signed letters calling upon the Pentagon to exonerate the SEALs, while accusing military leaders of bending over backward to protect a prisoner believed responsible for one of the most gruesome slayings of Americans in Iraq.
“These people are laying their lives on the line, and they can’t go into a combat situation with kid gloves on,” Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) said Thursday at a Capitol Hill news conference. The SEALs, he added, “should be hailed as heroes for doing their job.”
Advocates for the accused SEALs — Petty Officer 1st Class Julio A. Huertas Jr., Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew V. McCabe and Petty Officer 2nd Class Jonathan E. Keefe — said they have collected more than 150,000 signatures on petitions calling for an end to the court-martial proceedings.
The case has also become a hot topic among conservative bloggers, who say it is an example of how the military brass has become too averse to using hardball tactics against terrorists.
“We don’t have the governmental guts to let these guys walk away from what they did, if they did anything at all,” said Larry Bailey, a retired Navy captain and former SEAL.
Military officials have said that the alleged cover-up was more serious than the alleged crime, acknowledging that Abed was not badly hurt.
“The more disconcerting allegations are those related to the Sailors’ attempts to cover-up the incident, particularly in what appears to be an effort to influence the testimony of a witness,” Army Maj. Gen. Charles T. Cleveland, commander of Special Operations Command Central, wrote in a Dec. 15 letter to Burton.
Lawyers involved in the case said that witness — another Navy petty officer — reported that McCabe punched Abed in the stomach while he was being held at a detention center at Camp Schweidler.
He had been apprehended several hours earlier after the SEALs found him asleep in a safe house in Anbar province, according to military officials and lawyers in the case.
Abed was the target of a long-running manhunt by special forces. One of the Blackwater guards killed in Fallujah in 2004 was a former SEAL.
McCabe, the SEAL accused of punching Abed in the stomach, is scheduled to be tried in Norfolk in May. Keefe and Huertas have requested that their trials take place in Iraq so that Abed can be called as a witness. Abed is in the custody of Iraqi authorities.
Military officials had sought to punish the three SEALs administratively, which probably would have resulted in a reprimand or reassignment.
The SEALs, however, requested a trial as a chance to exonerate themselves, saying that the administrative punishment would have derailed their careers.
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