Army Says Improper Orders by Colonel Led to 4 Civilian Deaths

By PAUL von ZIELBAUER

New York Times

January 21, 2007

Army investigators say that Col. Michael D. Steele, a decorated combat veteran and brigade commander in Iraq, issued improper orders to his soldiers that contributed to the deaths of four unarmed Iraqi men during a raid in May, according to military documents.

No charges have been filed against Colonel Steele in the Army’s continuing investigation. But two Defense Department officials said last week that Colonel Steele was formally reprimanded in the summer by Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the former commander in Iraq, for not reporting the deaths and other details of the raid. The action was not made public.

The reprimand and the controversy surrounding the raid have effectively ended the career of Colonel Steele, an aggressive officer known for unorthodox methods and who was portrayed in the book and movie “Black Hawk Down” as a fearless fighter during Special Operations missions in Somalia in 1993.

The four Iraqi men were killed on a channel island northwest of Baghdad on May 9 by members of the division’s Third Brigade Combat Team, which Colonel Steele commanded. Four soldiers were later charged with murder by military prosecutors, who said they captured the men, then turned them loose and killed them as part of a staged escape attempt. Over the past two weeks, two of the soldiers have pleaded guilty to lesser charges.

The military’s administrative investigation into Colonel Steele centered on how he communicated the rules of engagement, the instructions that all soldiers must follow to determine whether they may legally use lethal force against an enemy, to his soldiers before the raid.

The colonel improperly led his soldiers to believe that distinguishing combatants from noncombatants — a main tenet of the military’s standing rules of engagement — was not necessary during the May 9 mission, according to a classified report in June by Brig. Gen. Thomas Maffey, a deputy commander tapped by General Chiarelli to investigate Colonel Steele. “A person cannot be targeted on status simply by being present on an objective deemed hostile by an on-scene commander,” General Maffey wrote in his June 16 report.

Although the colonel’s “miscommunication” of the rules contributed to the deaths of four unarmed Iraqis, General Maffey wrote, formal charges were not warranted “in light of his honest belief of the correctness of the mission R.O.E.” The general recommended that Colonel Steele be admonished, a lesser punishment than the formal reprimand he eventually received.

Several soldiers have said in sworn statements that Colonel Steele told them to kill all military-age males. Colonel Steele and two lawyers representing him did not respond to several e-mail and phone messages requesting comment on the case. But in testimony he gave on June 3 to General Maffey and another investigator at an Army garrison in Tikrit, Colonel Steele said he did not use “specific language” to order his soldiers to kill all military-age males, and that “we don’t shoot people with their hands up.”

On June 10, an investigative report by the 101st Airborne Division’s lawyers concluded: “Although clearly unintentional, confusion regarding the R.O.E. was the proximate cause of the death of at least four unarmed individuals, none of whom committed a hostile act or displayed hostile intent.”

In his June 3 testimony, Colonel Steele said he told his men that Army intelligence had shown that the island held dozens of fighters for Al Qaeda. “Guys, you are going to get shot coming off the helicopter,” Colonel Steele said he told them before the raid. “If you don’t get shot, you ought to be surprised.”

As it turned out, the assault occurred without encountering any hostile fire, and the soldiers found only unarmed men, women and children. Only excess caution by Colonel Steele’s troops spared the Iraqi civilians from being shot, General Maffey wrote in his report.

The military’s investigations of Colonel Steele’s actions before and after the raid also determined that the fourth Iraqi man killed in the assault was 70 years old, unarmed and not a legitimate target.

After the raid, several soldiers noticed blindfolds and plastic handcuffs on the bodies of three of the men who were killed. Colonel Steele testified that he ordered a junior officer to begin an investigation into the deaths but to avoid reporting any findings to the division commander until the colonel returned from leave a few weeks later.

The formal reprimand Colonel Steele received effectively blocks any chance for his promotion, according to former and current military officers. “When you’re looking to go from colonel to general, and it’s a 2 percent selection rate, you’re looking to throw people out, and that’s an easy one,” said John D. Hutson, the former judge advocate general of the Navy.

In November, Colonel Steele was reassigned out of Iraq and the 101st Airborne Division to an administrative assignment at Fort McPherson, Ga., where the Army Forces Command oversees the readiness of United States-based active-duty and Army Reserve soldiers. He will work in the unit responsible for Army operations and training, including developing methods of teaching soldiers how to handle enemy detainees, an Army spokesman said.

In addition to the trial of the four soldiers charged in the killings during the raid, an investigation is continuing into whether at least 10 other soldiers from Colonel Steele’s former brigade lied to cover up three of the deaths, according to a classified report in December by the Army’s Criminal Investigative Division. A division spokesman declined to comment on its investigation.