Friday, July 18, 2008

Blame 'botched operation,' not Khadr

Blame 'botched operation,' not Khadr

Khadr's defence team to argue friendly fire killed U.S. soldier

Steven Edwards , Canwest News Service

Published: Friday, July 18, 2008

NEW YORK - Omar Khadr's defence team says it has expert testimony indicating the soldier he is accused of killing died as a result of injuries inflicted by an American grenade.

The lawyers say the evidence will be added to the results of the defence's wider investigation of the July 2002 firefight, and show that the American assault had been a "botched operation."

The claim follows the lawyers' release of videotapes of Canadian officials interrogating Khadr that - beyond snippets they highlighted showing him crying or pulling at his hair - include statements he made that the prosecution in his war crimes case will have analyzed.

Omar Khadr's lawyers, Dennis Edney, left, and Nathan Whitling, right, say the evidence will be added to the results of the defence's wider investigation of the July 2002 firefight, and show that the American assault had been a 'botched operation.'

Omar Khadr's lawyers, Dennis Edney, left, and Nathan Whitling, right, say the evidence will be added to the results of the defence's wider investigation of the July 2002 firefight, and show that the American assault had been a 'botched operation.'

Greg Southam/Edmonton Journal
The contrasting pictures give a preview of some of the key opposing arguments when Khadr's war crimes trial gets under way in early October at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The proposition that American "friendly fire" may have killed Sgt. Chris Speer has been floated before by the defence, but U.S. navy Lt.-Cmdr. Bill Kuebler, Khadr's Pentagon-appointed attorney, said in an interview the expert testimony has helped them complete what he calls the "first coherent version" of the firefight.

In a report expected soon, one expert will say that Speer's injuries are consistent with the types of wounds that fragments of an American-made grenade would have caused. The conclusion of another expert corroborates that finding, says Kuebler.

Khadr, now 21, says in a portion of the seven hours of videotapes released this week there was an abundance of rifles, pistols and grenades in the compound he and other al-Qaida suspects occupied near Khost, Afghanistan, the day of the battle.

It is also believed that only the U.S. soldiers who stormed the compound were armed with American-made grenades.

"A war crimes investigator who examined the evidence, without prompting of any kind, offered his opinion that (it) suggested a friendly fire incident of some kind," Kuebler said.

"A ballistics expert has expressed the opinion that Sgt. Speer's wounds - based on photos and description - are consistent with the fragments expected of an American grenade, rather than a Russian grenade of the type Omar is alleged to have thrown."

Kuebler said defence interviews of soldiers who had been at the scene suggest a series of poor command decisions led to things going wrong for the American side.

"U.S. forces . . . surrounded the compound they knew to be occupied by armed militants," he said. "(Several) were injured, in the words of one of the soldiers we interviewed, because the U.S. troops were 'just standing around' outside the walls . . . instead of being in covered positions."

Kuebler said that after air strikes were called in "at least one aircraft refused to drop its 500-pound bombs . . . because the commander had positioned (soldiers) too close."

It also emerged publicly for the first time that the commander's goal of flattening the compound using a Humvee-mounted Mark 19 grenade launcher failed when it malfunctioned.

"The Mark 19 got off (only) one round, which landed well beyond the target," Kuebler said.

Though al-Qaida suspects were still alive in the compound, U.S. soldiers entered. "Based on our interviews," Kuebler said, "it appears that at least two U.S. soldiers threw hand grenades."

Kuebler said none of the interviewed soldiers "suggested that Speer was hit by friendly fire," and one, Sgt. Layne Morris, reportedly said this week he had seen Khadr, then 15, "crouched in the rubble waiting for U.S. troops to get close enough so he could take one of them out."

Kuebler, who counters Morris had been injured and removed from the scene ahead of the final assault, argues that had four, instead of just two, 500-pound bombs been dropped, and the Mark 19 worked "there is a very good chance that the last individuals in the compound, including Omar, would have been killed, and Sgt. Speer alive today."

Khadr's taped discussion of conditions in the compound ahead of the battle is among a number of scenes that didn't make the 10 minutes of highlights released early Tuesday by the Canadian lawyers defending Khadr, who work closely with Kuebler.

Although the lawyers later that day released all seven hours - they show Khadr being interrogated over four days in February 2003 - there has been little-to-no publicity given to scenes Khadr's prosecutors are more likely to have focused on.

In one he talks about his brothers receiving six months of training - with the interrogator asking if it was to learn about "infantry" and "rifles," and Khadr himself citing "grenades." Khadr also says his father put them through it "for self defence."

In another scene in which mines are mentioned, Khadr agrees with the interrogator's assessment that "the whole purpose . . . was to take them apart, to use them as an explosive."

Khadr says his father dropped him off at the compound near Khost - and the interrogator notes the multi-lingual youth had said it was to serve as a translator.

The interrogator draws out of Khadr that Afghans and at least two Arabs were present, and there was talk of attacking the Northern Alliance - the American-allied Afghan group that had opposed Taliban rule in Afghanistan

Khadr said he did not know how American forces discovered their location, adding later: "I didn't do anything. I was in the house when it started ... I had no choice."

Noting Khadr was the only person alive at the end of the battle, and was critically wounded, the interrogator mentions that the Canadian had said he was "waiting for the green lady."

It was an apparent reference by Khadr to martyrdom, and he identifies her as "your wife when you die" - but he also tells the interrogator he didn't think he believed in the concept.

The Canadian Supreme Court recently ordered the tapes released after Khadr's Canadian lawyers made requests for them from successive Canadian governments.

The public versions are heavily edited for security reasons. Kuebler dismisses any incriminating statements Khadr may have made at that time as inadmissible because of conditions of his confinement.

© Canwest News Service 2008