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Originally published September 25, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 25, 2007 at 2:05 AM

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Pentagon encouraged "baiting" in Iraq, snipers say

A pentagon group has encouraged some U.S. military snipers in Iraq to target suspected insurgents who pick up scattered pieces of "bait,"...

The Washington Post

Iraq developments

A suicide bomber struck as top Shiite and Sunni Muslim leaders were breaking their Ramadan fast together in a symbolic show of unity Monday in Baqouba. At least 15 people were killed and about 30 were wounded. Two U.S. troops were reportedly among the injured. The attack apparently targeted Diyala provincial and tribal leaders who are part of U.S. efforts to forge an alliance against Sunni extremists.

Iran shut down five major border crossings along the north's Kurdish autonomous region on Monday to protest the U.S. detention last week of Mahmudi Farhadi, an Iranian customs official accused by the U.S. military of links to an elite Iranian force smuggling weapons into Iraq.

In other violence Monday, a suicide truck bomber detonated explosives at a checkpoint run by Iraqi security forces on the road between Mosul and Tall Afar, killing six people and injuring 17, police said.

Police in Baghdad recovered the bodies of 12 victims of execution-style slayings.

An American soldier was killed by hostile fire in Salahuddin province north of Baghdad, the U.S. military said. No further details were released.

Seattle Times news services

WASHINGTON — A Pentagon group has encouraged some U.S. military snipers in Iraq to target suspected insurgents who pick up scattered pieces of "bait," such as detonation cords, plastic explosives and ammunition, a tactic that allegedly led to the killings of Iraqis, according to military court documents.

The classified program was described in investigative documents related to recently filed murder charges against three snipers who are accused of planting evidence on Iraqis they killed.

"Baiting is putting an object out there that we know they will use, with the intention of destroying the enemy," said Capt. Matthew P. Didier, the leader of an elite sniper scout platoon attached to the 1st Battalion of the 501st Infantry Regiment, in a sworn statement. "Basically, we would put an item out there and watch it. If someone found the item, picked it up and attempted to leave with the item, we would engage the individual as I saw this as a sign they would use the item against U.S. forces."

In documents obtained by The Washington Post from family members of the accused soldiers, Didier said members of the U.S. military's Asymmetric Warfare Group visited his unit in January and later passed along ammunition boxes filled with the "drop items" to be used.

Eugene Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice, said such a baiting program raises troubling possibilities, such as what happens when civilians pick up the items.

"In a country that is awash in armaments and magazines and implements of war, if every time somebody picked up something that was potentially useful as a weapon, you might as well ask every Iraqi to walk around with a target on his back," Fidell said.

Soldiers said about a dozen platoon members were aware of the program, and that numerous others knew about the "drop items" but did not know their purpose.

Criminal investigators wrote that they found materials related to the program in a cardboard box and an ammunition can at the sniper unit's base.

The Army on Monday declined to discuss the classified program, details of which appear in unclassified investigative documents and in transcripts of court testimony.

"To prevent the enemy from learning about our tactics, techniques and training procedures, we don't discuss specific methods targeting enemy combatants," said Paul Boyce, an Army spokesman.

Boyce also said there are no classified programs that authorize the murder of Iraqi civilians or the use of "drop weapons" to make killings appear to be legally justified, which is what the three snipers are accused of doing.

It is unclear whether such tactics were used elsewhere in Iraq and how many people were killed as a result.

Members of the sniper platoon have said they felt pressure from commanders to kill more insurgents because U.S. units in the area had taken heavy losses.

Though it does not appear the three alleged shootings were specifically part of the classified program, defense attorneys argue that it may have opened the door to the soldiers' actions because it blurred the legal lines of killing in a complex war zone.

James D. Culp, a civilian attorney for one of the snipers, Sgt. Evan Vela, said the soldiers became "battle-fatigued pawns in a newfangled concept of 'baiting' warfare."

Spec. Jorge Sandoval and Staff Sgt. Michael Hensley are accused by the military of placing a spool of wire into the pocket of an Iraqi man Sandoval had shot on April 27 on Hensley's order. The man had been cutting grass with a rusty sickle when he was shot, according to court documents.

Hensley and Sandoval have been charged with murder and with planting evidence.

As Sandoval and Hensley approached the corpse, according to testimony and court documents, they allegedly placed a spool of wire, often used by insurgents to detonate roadside bombs, into the man's pocket in an attempt to make the case for the kill ironclad.

One soldier who came forward with the allegations, Pfc. David C. Petta, told the same court that he believed the classified items were for dropping on people the unit had killed, "to enforce if we killed somebody that we knew was a bad guy but we didn't have the evidence to show for it." Petta had not been officially briefed about the program.

Two weeks after that killing, Sandoval and his sniper team stopped for the night in a concealed "hide" in the village of Jurf as Sakhr along the Euphrates River. While other snipers slept, Hensley watched as an Iraqi man, Genei Nesir Khudair, slowly approached the hide. He radioed to Didier, then a first lieutenant, for permission to go for a "close kill."

"I told him that as the ground-forces commander, I would authorize that if it was necessary," Didier testified. "And about five minutes later, he told me that he had indeed killed the individual."

The U.S. military alleges that Vela, on Hensley's order, shot the Iraqi man twice in the head with a 9-mm pistol after he had been taken into custody. It was Vela's first kill, and he was visibly shaken.

At the time the two shots rang out, Sandoval was on guard duty about 20 yards away, out of sight of Vela, inside a broken-down pump house along the Euphrates River, soldiers testified.

Vela and Hensley told investigators that the man had an AK-47 with him and that he posed a threat, but other soldiers have alleged that the AK-47 was planted next to Khudair after he was shot. Sandoval's attorney, Capt. Craig Drummond, thinks his client is innocent in both deaths.

"Literally, they have charged this guy with two murders when on both occasions he was just doing his job," Drummond said.

Drummond said Sandoval did not have anything to do with placing an AK-47 in the pump-house killing. Sandoval made a statement to investigators discussing his involvement in planting the command wire on the first victim.

"That was done by one of the soldiers at the scene basically out of stupidity. The guys were trying to ensure that there were no questions at all about this kill," Drummond said.

Hensley is also charged with killing an Iraqi man whom he approached after the sniper team noticed the man placing wires on a road. Hensley shot him outside his home, maintaining that the man appeared to be moving for a weapon.

Two and a half months after the shooting near the pump house, authorities seized Sandoval while he was vacationing at his mother's house in Laredo, Texas.

Sandoval is scheduled to face a court-martial in Baghdad on Wednesday.

Vela's father, Curtis Carnahan, said he thinks the military is rushing the cases and is holding the proceedings in a war zone to shield facts from the U.S. public.

"It's an injustice that is being done to them," Carnahan said. "I feel like you can't prosecute our soldiers for acts of war and threaten them with years and years of confinement when this program, if it comes to the light of day, was clearly coming from higher levels. ... All those people who said 'go use this stuff' just disappeared, like they never sanctioned it."

Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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