Two Views at Court-Martial on Seizing Iraqi Vehicle

By JAMES DAO

The New York Times

July 29, 2004

FORT CAMPBELL, Ky., July 28 - A decorated Army sergeant charged with stealing a sport utility vehicle at gunpoint in Iraq last year testified on Wednesday in his court-martial that he had seized the vehicle for purely military purposes.

The family of the soldier, First Sgt. James H. Williams, said he was being made a scapegoat to appease Iraqis angry with the American military presence in their country.

Sergeant Williams, in an engineering battalion of the 101st Airborne Division, faces more than 15 years in prison if convicted on charges that he illegally confiscated a 2001 Toyota Land Cruiser in April 2003 from the son of a tribal leader in Mosul and that he was derelict for failing to stop soldiers in his platoon from drinking alcohol in Iraq.

The prosecution has said Sergeant Williams and other platoon members violated rules on seizing civilian property and lied to cover up the theft. The authorities have suggested that taking the S.U.V. was frivolous and possibly motivated by the troops' anger toward an Iraqi driver rather than a legitimate need.

Sergeant Williams's lawyer and his family have tried to turn his case into a cause, saying that his mistakes were petty and that he was acting under orders to find a vehicle for his platoon leader. They say the charges would have never been brought except that the Land Cruiser was owned by the son of a powerful clan leader, Sheik Ahmed Watban al-Fasil, who has been cooperating with American commanders in rebuilding Iraq. Sheik Fasil was considered close to the commander of the 101st Airborne at the time, Maj. Gen. David H. Patraeus, who has a leading role in rebuilding Iraq. General Patraeus recommended that Sergeant Williams, 37, face a court-martial.

"Had that vehicle belonged to anyone else, we wouldn't be here today," a sister of Sergeant Williams, Russell Williams Perry, said.

Ms. Perry said the military might be feeling greater pressure to prosecute soldiers after American soldiers were accused of abusing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison.

"The very institution that he has dedicated his life to has turned on him," Ms. Perry, a school psychologist from the Woodlands, Tex., said. "It's political."

Sergeant Williams, 37, has been in the Army for 17 years, won a Purple Heart last year in Iraq and served in the Persian Gulf war of 1991. Experts in military law said he faced an uphill fight in trying to convince a jury of military officers that his actions were benign.

Eugene R. Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice, a nonprofit organization, said it was not surprising that the military would take stiff action against soldiers who violated rules if that helped maintain good relations with important people in other countries.

"The 'occupying country' has to keep its eye on relations with the local people," Mr. Fidell said. "Does that mean when a local notable becomes a victim the 'occupying power' might be more energetic in its prosecution? It might well."

Sergeant Williams, who testified for more than two hours on Wednesday, says he seized the vehicle on the orders of his platoon leader, Second Lt. Bradley Pavlik, whose vehicle had been broken for weeks. Sergeant Williams said because of chronic problems with vehicles, the platoon was unable to fulfill its mission, to find Iraqi weapons.

Sergeant Williams testified that Lieutenant Pavlik on "several occasions" ordered him to find a vehicle, at one point throwing "a tantrum" in frustration at not having transportation. Lieutenant Pavlik faces a court-martial next month on charges that he conspired to cover up the seizing of the Land Cruiser.

Another staff sergeant in the incident, Alberto Lozano, pleaded guilty to charges of helping steal the vehicle and has completed a one-year prison term.

The owner of the vehicle, Zamil Ahmed Watban, was not injured in the incident and was paid $32,000 for his car by the American military.

The incident occurred on April 26, 2003, when Sergeant Williams and members of his platoon chased the vehicle after it had swerved in front of a platoon Humvee. When the Land Cruiser pulled over, the soldiers ordered the driver out and took the vehicle. Sergeant Williams testified that although he did not initiate the chase, he approved taking the S.U.V.

The sergeant testified that he believed the seizure was allowed under the rules of engagement at that time. The rules said civilian property could be taken for military purposes if the owner was given a receipt.

The soldiers fled before leaving a receipt, saying they felt threatened by a gathering crowd of Iraqis.

"I was a soldier, fulfilling my duty to my lieutenant within the guidelines of the rules of engagement," Sergeant Williams said.

On cross-examination, the prosecution suggested that Sergeant Williams could have done more to make his platoon and Lieutenant Pavlik followed the rules more strictly.

"It seemed,'' a prosecutor, Capt. Howard Hoege, said, "that every step of the way when you could have done something to correct the error of his ways, you didn't take it."