Killing by the numbers

In 2007 elite U.S. snipers executed an unarmed Iraqi prisoner in cold blood. Have the insidious tactics that led to atrocities in Vietnam reemerged in Iraq?

Published May 9, 2008 11:10AM (EDT)

Genei Nesir Khudair al-Janabi, an Iraqi vegetable farmer, walked down to the ramshackle pump house along the banks of the Euphrates. Each day at midmorning, he would start the seven-horsepower pump to water his crops.

Khudair passed through the tall grass and palm trees of his farm in Jurf as Sakhr, a predominantly Sunni area 30 miles south of Baghdad dominated by sprawling patches of farmland, irrigation canals and regular eruptions of lethal violence. Daytime temperatures had lately been over 115 degrees, and it was already sweltering as he crossed the 500 meters for the last time.

As Khudair approached the pump house on May 11, 2007, he stumbled upon a team of five sweat-soaked U.S. Army snipers, dazed with heat and fatigue, hidden in the grass of a small hill. It's hard to say who was more surprised, the Iraqi or the American troops. The sniper on guard at the "hide" was so shocked to see Khudair wander up to his position that he froze for a moment, staring. Then he approached Khudair and pointed a 9 mm pistol at the farmer's head.

Meanwhile, Khudair's 17-year-old son, Mustafa, was at the family home when he learned that a cousin had been killed in an accident. Mustafa hurried from the house to find his father in the fields and tell him the horrible news.

But as Mustafa approached, an American sniper popped out of the brush and waved him closer. Struck with fear, he entered the snipers' hide to find his father, alive, face down on a patch of dirt with the corner of a plastic Army poncho over his head. Two soldiers were standing over him. They forced Mustafa to lie down, with his head close to his father's in an "L" on the ground, and then pulled the corner of the poncho over his head too.

A half-hour passed. Khudair complained about the heat. The soldiers suddenly hoisted Mustafa up and signaled that he was free to go, but his father was still on the ground under the poncho. As he left the hide, Mustafa motioned toward Khudair and tried, in broken English, to tell the Americans who their prisoner was: "Father, father."

Mustafa had just gotten back to the family home, 15 minutes later, when he heard two gunshots.

Three snipers with exemplary military records from the 1st Battalion of the 25th Infantry Division's 501st Regiment were charged in Khudair's killing. They were tried by the military judicial system in Iraq beginning in 2007. But the most important question raised by his death remains unanswered. Why would these elite American soldiers kill an unarmed prisoner in cold blood? The answer: pressure from their commanding officers to pump up a statistic straight out of America's last long war against an intractable insurgency.

A review of thousands of pages of documents from the legal proceedings obtained by Salon shows that in the months prior to Khudair's death, the young snipers, already frustrated by guerrilla tactics, were pressed to their physical limits and pushed by officers to stretch the bounds of the laws of war in order to increase the enemy body count. When the United States wallowed in Vietnam's counterinsurgency quagmire decades ago, the same pressure placed on soldiers resulted in some of the worst atrocities of that war. A paratrooper who remembered the insidious influence of body counts in Vietnam warned Salon in 2005 that the practice could also ensnare good soldiers in Iraq. "The problem is that in Iraq, we are in a guerrilla war," said Dennis Stout. "How do you keep score? How do you prove you are winning?"

The pressure from above for more bodies was also toxic in Iraq, where the isolated, outnumbered and outgunned snipers of the 1st Battalion had to make split-second life-or-death decisions. When those decisions landed them in a military court, it was the lowest-ranking soldiers, not the brass, who paid the price, and a sergeant who said he was pushed into taking a fatal shot who wound up with a long prison sentence. It was battalion commander Lt. Col Robert Balcavage, who pushed for a higher body count, who initiated the prosecution of three of the battalion's snipers. "Yes, the chain of command deserves to burn in hell," one sniper who served with the unit wrote Salon in an e-mail. "But I am not going on record saying that, well, cause I am still in the fucking Army."

The body-count pressure on the 1st Battalion's sniper section began to build in early 2007. In an insurgency like Vietnam or Iraq, it's hard to point to achievement of a military objective or conquest of a town or region as success. Instead, commanders find themselves relying on numbers, which is how body counts began to creep into the Iraq war, despite their explicit disavowal by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in 2003 ("We don't do body counts"). In need of a positive metric, commanders of the 1st Battalion reached for body counts, since the metrics they did have were moving in the wrong direction. At the time, U.S. casualties from invisible roadside bombs were mounting. In the six months before the snipers arrived in country from Alaska in late October 2006, 426 U.S. service members had died in Iraq. In the six months between the 1st Battalion's arrival and the day Khudair was killed, May 11, 2007, nearly 590 service members died in Iraq. It was one of the bloodiest periods of the Iraq war. At the time there was a new commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, who was talking about winning hearts and minds. The snipers' commanders were talking about bodies. The battalion commander, Lt. Col. Balcavage, and top noncommissioned officer Command Sgt. Maj. Bernie Knight sent a clear message to the battalion's snipers. Spc. Alexander Flores, a sniper, described it this way in a hearing: "Get more bodies. Raise the morale of the battalion."

The résumé of Staff Sgt. Mike Hensley made the battalion leadership think he would be the leader who could produce the bodies. It wasn't just that during a previous tour in Afghanistan, he refused to leave his unit despite contracting malaria, or that in Iraq he insisted on inspecting bridges personally for road bombs to keep his soldiers out of harm's way, though that helped. He combined that commitment to the mission and to his men with a reputation for lethality. He was a competition-winning sniper. "The rest of the sniper section love Staff Sgt. Hensley," Sgt. Alexander Anuschat, a sniper who reported to Hensley, would later testify. "He was the perfect man for the job."

Officers hand-picked Hensley to lead the sniper section in early 2007. Hensley immediately suggested beefing up his new section from seven to 13 snipers, that in the field would operate in teams of about six men per mission. The men Hensley commanded also included Sgt. Evan Vela, Spc. Jorge Sandoval, Pvt. David Petta and Spc. Alexander Flores. Vela was a father of two from Idaho, married to his high school sweetheart. Sandoval, of Laredo, Texas, had never seen snow before being stationed in Fort Richardson in Alaska prior to Iraq. Petta and Flores would later start the investigation of the sniper section's actions by reporting questionable shootings to their commanding officers.

Officers were pleased when, under Hensley's lead, the snipers started racking up kills. But soon, the snipers were pushing the envelope. The decision of when to shoot and when not to shoot is often vexing for snipers, but following the rules of engagement became still more difficult for the snipers after commanding officers encouraged a loose interpretation of the rules to increase the likelihood of a kill.

The Law of Armed Conflict requires soldiers to identify “hostile intent" before pulling the trigger. "You have to decide if the individual you are looking at is a combatant or a civilian," explained Scott Silliman, executive director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke Law. "You must conclude that the individual is a combatant." There is no requirement that a target be armed, but he can't be hors de combat -- injured, surrendering or detained.

The nature of guerrilla warfare makes it difficult, however, to nail down exactly what that means on the battlefield. Lt. Matthew Didier, the officer directly in charge of the snipers, offered a tautology in one hearing late last year, explaining that the snipers could shoot if they had "reasonable certainty that the military target is, in fact, a military target." Knight, the senior noncommissioned officer in the battalion, told Army investigators who later looked into the killing of unarmed Iraqis that the snipers were instructed that they could fire when they had "reasonable certainty that someone is committing acts of violence against coalition forces or Iraqis."

The snipers remained nervous because, at best, the guidelines they were getting from their commanders were nebulous. The snipers felt they were being pressured to interpret "hostile intent" loosely to justify kills. During testimony, sniper Spc. Joshua Michaud said that Lt. Col. Balcavage and Command Sgt. Maj. Knight "constantly pushed for 'If you feel threatened, you know, obviously eliminate the threat.' But they kind of said it in a manner in which a lot of us took it like, 'Hey, you need to go out there and you guys gotta start getting kills.'"

At worst, the rules explicitly allowed the killing of unarmed Iraqis under certain circumstances, a particularly dicey concept given an enemy that does not wear a uniform and hides among civilians. Specifically, the snipers were allowed to shoot unarmed people running away from explosions or firefights. The chain of command was particularly frustrated by insurgents fleeing after attacks from roadside bombs, called improvised explosive devices. The notes from Army agents who later investigated the shootings said the battalion leaders, Balcavage and Knight, worried that the snipers had "let a lot of guys go after IED explosions." The snipers called these fleeing, sometimes unarmed Iraqis "squirters." Of course, it's not unusual for innocent people to run from explosions.

Didier, who has since been promoted to captain, said that "if that individual makes contact with you and then breaks contact of their own accord and disarms themselves while they are breaking contact, they are still an engageable target because they are not wounded, nor did they surrender." He explained, "They are only breaking contact so that they can engage coalition forces at a later time." In court, Sgt. Anthony Murphy, one of the snipers who was responsible for a questionable kill, testified that he interpreted this order about breaking contact so they can engage at a later time as: "Engage fleeing local nationals without weapons."

In addition to the vague rules of engagement and pressure to boost the body count, a furtive Pentagon unit, the Asymmetric Warfare Group, further blurred the soldiers' perceptions of what was acceptable. The covert program run by the Pentagon and supported by another "government agency" supplied the snipers with materiel to place on the battlefield, like explosives and ammunition, that might interest insurgents.

The Washington Post reported in September 2007 that the items were part of a "baiting" program and that the purpose was to shoot Iraqis who picked them up. Pulling the trigger, however, was never part of the operation, according to testimony and people with knowledge of the program.

The idea of "baiting," or putting out items and shooting Iraqis who picked up the materiel, was actually developed at the platoon level, according to the testimony of Didier, the officer in charge of the platoon. It is unclear if the tactic was ever used in the field.

Only a handful of the snipers were informed of the materiel's real purpose, which remains secret but has nothing to do with shooting people on sight. Because equipment was distributed equally among their packs, some soldiers who were not aware of the materiel's purpose were still forced to lug it. Soon, confused about the extra equipment's true purpose, they were imagining other explanations, and their confusion seems to have contributed to their willingness to bend the rules of engagement. The two snipers who eventually alerted authorities to the questionable kills and spurred an investigation believed the items were "drop weapons" to be placed on unarmed Iraqis after an illegal kill.

The killing of Genei Nesir Khudair al-Janabi took place on May 11, and it was the final kill for which snipers were prosecuted. But Khudair was, in fact, at least the fourth unarmed Iraqi the snipers had killed in the short time since Hensley took over leadership of the sniper section in March 2007. Each incident illustrates the ways in which the rules of engagement, the pressure to produce, the mysterious extra equipment, and the inherent difficulties of their jobs landed the snipers in court.

The first incident occurred on April 7, 2007. Sgt. Anthony Murphy's sniper team was hiding in a shallow ravine. Through his rifle scope, Murphy watched a lone Iraqi man approaching through some bushes, his figure distorted by a heat mirage. The man appeared and then disappeared again, winding through nearby ravines. Soon, he was 50 meters away and Murphy was sure the man had spotted the team's satellite communications gear through the brush.

In sniper talk, they had been "compromised." Being compromised, or seen while on a mission, was particularly chilling, especially in areas where there had been significant insurgent activity. Three days earlier, a seemingly innocent goatherd had spotted one of the sniper teams in the same location. Within minutes, mortars were raining down on them.

Even a handful of insurgents could easily overrun one of the small, autonomous sniper teams. "They are all around us," Murphy said during a court hearing. "We are put into their environment, their backyard."

On April 7, even after the Iraqi man had apparently seen the snipers' gear, he continued to move forward, alarming Murphy. "When people see us, they freak out," Murphy explained in a hearing. "They leave. They get scared. They stop. They start screaming." This Iraqi kept moving closer.

Murphy could see through the bushes that the man also had something in his hands, he just couldn't make out what it was. Murphy did not wait to find out. He pulled the trigger, killing the man with one bullet.

When it turned out that the Iraqi was carrying a 3-foot piece of pipe, the snipers got nervous. Murphy later testified that Sgt. 1st Class Steven Kipling worried that higher-ups might question the legitimacy of the shooting and asked Murphy if they should place a weapon on the body to make him look "more guilty."

Murphy refused. "I did the right thing," he said, and then cited the rules of engagement. "Hostile intent. Hostile act. End."

Murphy's aggressive commanders agreed. Notes from Army special agents who later investigated the snipers show the chain of command had looked into the April 7 shooting and "concluded Sgt. Murphy correctly determined hostile intent and engaged the individual with a single shot." The words "hostile intent" would show up again and again in thousands of pages of sworn testimony about the incidents that were reviewed by Salon.

In such a dangerous area, seeing an Iraqi eyeing U.S. troops with binoculars, or just digging a ditch, was enough to create a belief in "hostile intent." On April 14, a sniper team was monitoring a power substation when Hensley, the sniper section leader, told other snipers that he had spotted an Iraqi man who appeared to be laying command wire for a roadside bomb. But Hensley couldn't get in a clean shot and lost sight of the man.

A little before 5 p.m. Hensley received an order to keep an eye on a nearby house while incoming infantry troops performed a search there. According to the notes of Army investigators, this irritated Hensley, who asked for two volunteers. Hensley, Pvt. David Petta and Sgt. Richard Hand walked directly down a road toward the home.

Hand and Petta flanked Hensley as they approached the house. There were women and children outside and an unarmed Iraqi man, Mutham Nia Hussein Alwan, working on a water pump. At about 120 meters away, Hensley said, "That's the guy." Hand and Petta split off to the left. According to the investigating agents' notes, when the snipers were 50 meters away from the house, a little more than half a football field, Hensley raised his weapon, then lowered it. They continued to close in.

Then a single shot rang out from Hensley's M14 sniper rifle. At that moment, Sgt. Hand's weapon was trained on one of the women. "As soon as the shot happened, she became hysteric [sic]," Hand would later testify. "She started going crazy. I mean, obviously, somebody she loved or cared for had just died. She became my No. 1 priority, because I was afraid I was going to have to shoot her."

The body was later tested with EXPRAY, a field test kit used to detect explosives. It came up positive. But there is some evidence that Hensley might have been worried that the chain of command would still balk at the kill. Kipling testified that earlier that day he had found a length of detonation wire, balled it up, and given it to Hensley to bring back to base. A balled-up section of detonation wire was found on the body. Kipling said in court that he was "80 percent sure" the wire on the body was the same wire he had given Hensley. If Kipling is to be believed, the snipers had moved from merely talking about "drop weapons" to using them.

Two weeks later, on April 27, the loose rules for shooting unarmed, fleeing Iraqis -- "squirters" -- contributed to a death. Didier, the snipers' immediate superior officer, radioed to Hensley that a squirter was headed his way.

An Iraqi army unit was investigating a weapons cache site when they were attacked by two insurgents dressed in dark track suits who quickly broke contact and fled east. Didier had set up Hensley and other snipers a half-mile in that direction. He radioed Hensley and described the two men en route.

A half-hour later, Hensley replied that he had "got eyes on" a man who fit that description moving east, according to hearing transcripts. "[Hensley] said [the man] was no longer armed. But he asked if he could still engage the individual," Didier recalled. "I said yes, based on the current ROE, he could."

The sniper team was hidden in a 3-foot-deep dry creek bed. Hensley and another sniper, Spc. Jorge Sandoval, watched through some trees as a man in dark clothing walked into an olive grove, squatted and began cutting the knee-high grass with a sickle. Hensley told Sandoval to grab his weapon and the two men moved 150 to 200 meters south along the creek bed to the edge of the tree line that had been blocking their shot.

Even from the new position, 200 meters away, only the man's head appeared intermittently in Sandoval's rifle scope through the tall grass. Hensley asked Sandoval if he had the shot. Sandoval stood to get a better angle. Hensley asked twice more. The third time, Sandoval fired. He quickly chambered another round, but Hensley told him he wouldn't need it.

Sandoval drew his sidearm as the two snipers approached the body. The man had been shot in the head. Other snipers from the team approached as well and recognized the Iraqi as a man they had detained and released just days earlier. "You could tell by some of his face that was left," Michaud, one of the other snipers there that day, said in a hearing.

As shocking as it might seem to shoot an unarmed Iraqi cutting grass, many times the snipers had seen insurgents feign farming or other harmless activity after attacking U.S. troops. Michaud said in one hearing that "they'll run and pick up some farm equipment, or they might run to their house and start working on their vehicle, or they basically try to do anything they can to throw you off to make you think that, 'Hey I was not part of that.'"

Even though the snipers had seen squirters' tricks before -- and this shot had been approved by Didier -- Hensley and Sandoval apparently worried officers would not see the April 27 shooting as a clean kill. Sandoval testified that when he and Hensley first stood over the mutilated corpse, Hensley handed him command wire and told him to put it next to the body.

The snipers, however, did not use the Pentagon's secret equipment as drop weapons. The use of drop weapons by Hensley was freelance. The presence of the unexplained equipment, however, may have encouraged the belief among soldiers that drop weapons were acceptable. If drop weapons were standard operating procedure, where was the line between right and wrong?

The events leading to the killing of Genei Nesir Khudair al-Janabi began three days earlier, on May 8. The snipers awoke at 4 a.m. to begin preparations for a mission that night. The team finally left Patrol Base Jurf at 11:30 p.m., bearing packs that weighed more than 100 pounds. They moved slowly through the night to avoid detection. It took them 90 minutes to travel three miles. The snipers finally reached their "hide" at 4 a.m.

They spent the next day hidden in reeds by a canal, while the temperature climbed past 115. That afternoon, Murphy drank 12 quarts of water in six hours and still needed two IVs. He checked his pulse and counted 120 beats per minute. "Once you feel like you are cooking inside, your heart begins to race," he later testified.

The snipers stayed in position until 8 p.m. that night. For part of the march back to the patrol base, the snipers joined an infantry company headed in the same direction. One soldier from the company who was not even carrying a rucksack passed out from heat exhaustion. Medics gave him three IVs when the men reached the base at 11:30.

The snipers ate, debriefed and changed their clothes. Some got a few hours of sleep. Hand, who had been awake for 45 hours, testified that he slept from 3 a.m. to 7 a.m. then "scrounged together enough coffee" to have a cup.

The snipers spent a restless, sleep-deprived May 10 cleaning equipment and preparing for the next mission outside the wire, scheduled for that night. "In terms of the patrol base," Hand testified, "you really can't sleep, there is too much movement, too much noise and there is no shade unless you make some."

Murphy, still recovering from the previous day's dehydration, told Hensley, the leader of the sniper section, he could not make that night's mission. Another sniper, Sgt. Robert Redfern, volunteered to take Murphy's place.

Murphy, whom Vela later described as "like a brother to me," saw Vela just before the mission. Vela was readying his gear. He looked drained. Murphy asked Vela, "Are you good, man?"

Hensley, Vela, Sandoval, Hand and Redfern left Patrol Base Jurf at around 10 p.m. and arrived at their "hide" at 2 a.m. on the morning of May 11. The hide was a grassy hill next to a run-down pump house on the banks of the Euphrates. An infantry company soon began raiding a nearby house in a futile effort to locate insurgent rockets.

In the field, snipers sleep in shifts, or "rest cycles," with one man keeping guard while the others try to rest. By 10 a.m. the next morning, the guard on duty was Vela.

Vela testified that he remembered looking over a nearby berm and then in another direction at some children playing a few hundred meters away. When he turned back around toward the berm, Khudair, the vegetable farmer, "was just there."

Vela froze. Sandoval, who had been woken by the sound of the Iraqi's approach, motioned toward Vela's gun. Taking the signal, Vela pointed the 9 mm pistol at the farmer's face.

Sandoval woke up Redfern. Redfern and Vela waved the Iraqi into the hide, forced him down on his stomach and put the corner of the plastic poncho over his head. Vela stood over the man with the pistol, while Redfern ran his hands over Khudair's shoulders, arms, sides, back and chest in a cursory search. No weapons.

Vela woke Hensley and told him an unarmed Iraqi was in the hide. Hensley stood up, walked over to the Iraqi -- and from a standing position dropped a knee into his back with the full force of his body.

Khudair threw his head back, gasping for wind. "Staff Sgt. Hensley grabbed him by the mouth," Vela testified, "and told him to shut up or he was going to kill him."

Hensley wrapped parachute cord around the Iraqi's hands and Redfern dragged him deeper into the snipers' hide. At this point, Redfern spotted a boy approaching and waved him into the hide site as well. The snipers put him on his stomach, so the two Iraqis formed an L-shape on the ground with both of their heads under the corner of the poncho.

Hensley then dispatched Sandoval and Redfern to the pump house, 15 to 20 meters away, to provide security. Vela handed his pistol to Sandoval, who was armed with a bolt-action rifle that could only hold five rounds without reloading.

Vela said Hensley sat down on the berm for a moment. He then got up and radioed their superior officer, Didier. Hensley reported that he had spotted an Iraqi nearby armed with an AK-47. But Vela couldn't see anyone who matched that description. Vela alerted Hand, who was fading in and out of sleep on a nearby berm, that Hensley "might have seen something." Then Hensley ordered Vela to retrieve his pistol from Sandoval in the pump house.

A half-hour after the 17-year-old Iraqi boy entered the hide, Sandoval and Redfern saw him pass by their position in the pump house as he walked home. Thinking that both Iraqis had been released, Sandoval peered around the pump house wall to look into the hide. Khudair was still there. Vela was sitting on his rear, with one leg cocked up and an elbow resting on his knee, holding the pistol in one hand.

Inside the hide, Hensley radioed Didier a second time, saying an insurgent was moving closer to their position. Hensley asked permission to do a "close kill" to avoid being compromised.

Vela then looked around, but still didn't see any armed insurgent. "I was just really confused about what he was saying," Vela testified.

Hensley untied the Iraqi. "I thought we were going to let him go," Vela told the Army court.

"Are you ready?" Hensley allegedly asked Vela.

Hensley stepped aside. "Shoot," he said.

Vela claimed during testimony that he doesn't remember pulling the trigger. "It took me a second to realize that the shot had come from the pistol and it was in my hand."

Hensley radioed to Didier that the snipers had killed an insurgent. Meanwhile, the Iraqi's body convulsed. Hensley "kind of laughed" at the spectacle, according to Vela. Hensley then "[punched] the guy in the throat, and said, 'Shoot him again,' which I did."

Vela testified that after he shot the man for the second time, Hensley pulled an AK-47 out of his rucksack and placed it on the body. The snipers then agreed on a story about the shooting consistent with Hensley's radio calls.

Murphy, the soldier who had stayed behind because of dehydration, was sitting on a Humvee when the snipers trailed back into Patrol Base Jurf. The men were so soaked with sweat that Murphy thought they had waded through a canal.

"Hey, what's up, man?" Murphy asked Vela. But Vela just walked past his friend in silence. In testimony Murphy described Vela as "detached, somber, serious."

In late June 2007, less than two months after Khudair's death, Flores and Petta informed military authorities that the sniper section might be using drop weapons. That led to investigation of the circumstances of several of the unit's kills, which led in turn to the arrest of Sandoval, Hensley and Vela.

Sandoval was charged with murder for the deaths on April 27 and May 11, but convicted only of planting command wire in connection with the April 27 killing. He served about a month and a half in prison. The Army charged Hensley with three murders for the shootings of April 14, April 27 and May 11. He was convicted of planting a weapon, for placing the AK-47 next to Khudair, and insubordination. He was sentenced to time served and busted down to sergeant.

On February 10, 2008, however, Vela was sentenced to 10 years in a military prison for the murder of Khudair.

Top battalion leaders, who had to sign off on the charges, have faced no serious questions about whether their demand for more bodies, their vague rules of engagement or the confusion sown by the secret program might have contributed to the events of spring 2007. U.S. Army Alaska spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Allen said Balcavage and Knight were unavailable for an interview.

Hand, one of the snipers in the hide on May 11, later testified that he believes his "main responsibility is to take care of my subordinates." But the battalion leaders, he said, "have been very lax in their care of anybody except themselves."

"If you have never been outside the wire, you really have no basis [to judge]," said Hand. "You've never been in a life-or-death situation where you have had to count on the guy to your left and right ... You see stuff out there that no one back here is going to see."

Hensley, meanwhile, is back on active duty. Now a sergeant, he is stationed in Georgia, where he is an instructor for Army Rangers.

By Mark Benjamin

Mark Benjamin is a national correspondent for Salon based in Washington, D.C. Read his other articles here.

MORE FROM Mark Benjamin

By Christopher Weaver

Christopher Weaver is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.

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Afghanistan Donald Rumsfeld Iraq Iraq War Middle East