A statement by the Marine officer charged with pre-meditated murder for killing two Iraqi insurgents is expected to provide support for defense attorneys as well as prosecutors, who likely will underscore his attempt to “send a message” to Iraqis and fellow servicemen.
A pre-trial, or Article 32, hearing next month will determine whether 2nd Lt. Ilario G. Pantano will face a court-martial that could lead to the death penalty.
As WorldNetDaily reported, Pantano’s quick-reaction platoon, operating in the Sunni Triangle town of Mahmudiyah, detained the Iraqis April 15, 2004, after securing a terrorist hideaway where the Marines found a weapons cache. Pantano contends the Iraqis disobeyed his order in Arabic to stop, prompting him to open fire on them.
A spokesman for the Marine Corps Second Division command at Camp Lejeune, N.C., where Pantano is based, says he understands the outrage from Americans supportive of U.S. troops but urges patience until the prosecution presents its case.
Prosecutors charging Pantano with two counts of pre-meditated murder likely will highlight the officer’s statement last June that he emptied two magazines of M-16 ammunition on the Iraqis and left their bodies on display to “send a message,” according to the Star-News newspaper of Wilmington, N.C., where the officer is living with his wife and two children.
The prosecution’s case is based primarily on the accusation of radio operator Sgt. Daniel Coburn, who was at the scene with Navy medical corpsman George A. Gobles.
The Star-News obtained copies of the charge sheet and the testimonies of Gobles and Pantano.
Pantano told the investigator, “I had made a decision that when I was firing I was going to send a message to these Iraqis and others that when we say, ‘no better friend, no worse enemy,’ we mean it. I had fired both magazines into the men, hitting them with about 80 percent of my rounds.”
The phrase, coined by controversial Gen. James Mattis of the Marine Corps Combat Development, means the Marines can be a good friend to the Iraqi people but a fierce foe if attacked.
“I simply knew that I had told my platoon that if we were engaged in a gunfight, we would send a strong message that we were not going to be attacked,” Pantano said. “Again, I believed that by firing the number of rounds that I did, I was sending a message that we were ‘no better friend, no worse enemy.'”
The charge sheet says Pantano was “derelict in the performance of his duties” by leaving the bodies “on display in order to send a message to the local people.”
Those actions likely will be used by prosecutors to paint a picture of Pantano’s state of mind during the incident, but his lawyer, Charles Gittins, insists it’s irrelevant, pointing out the officer did not use the slogan or make up the sign until after the men were dead.
Pantano “had been placed in a position to have to use deadly force,” Gittins told the Wilmington paper. “The sign is indicative of a young lieutenant who just had the stuff scared out of him, using Gen. Mattis’ words as a little bravado under the stress of the moment. And he took it down on his own after thinking about it. The sign doesn’t have anything to do with the exercise of self-defense.”
The charge sheet says Pantano ordered Gobles and Coburn to “look away” from him as he pointed his rifle at the Iraqis. But Gittins maintains the men were facing outward because they took up sentry positions.
“He didn’t tell them where to look,” Gittins said. “He ordered them to take up positions to provide security. They knew what that meant and acted accordingly.”
The incident began when Pantano, Coburn and Gobles were outside the suspected insurgent hideaway and saw two men attempting to flee in a white SUV.
The Marines disabled the car by shooting the tires, then handcuffed the Iraqis. After hearing weapons were found in the house, Pantano had the cuffs removed and ordered the Iraqis to search the SUV, fearing the vehicle could be booby-trapped.
“As the sergeant and the corpsman served as my guardian angels, I told the two Iraqis via hand signals to search the car and to pull apart the seats,” Pantano said. “They were talking the whole time. … I told them several times to be quiet by saying ‘stop’ in Arabic. They continued to talk.”
Pantano said he told them to be quiet again, then “they quickly pivoted their bodies toward each other. They did this simultaneously, while speaking in muffled Arabic. I thought they were attacking me and I decided to fire my M-16A4 service rifle in self-defense. I believed that they were attacking me, and I felt I was within the rules of engagement to fire.”
The accuser, Coburn, claims Pantano shot the men in the back. Gobles’ version of events largely supports Pantano, but the Navy corpsman says he believed the Iraqis were moving away from the lieutenant.
Gittins believes the descrepancy is a matter of perspective, based on where each man was standing, and says the two Iraqis were shot not only in the back, but all over their bodies.
The lawyer describes Coburn as a “disgruntled” officer with a grudge who had to be relieved of command by Pantano for poor performance.
“Ilario didn’t need to wait to see if they were going to kill him before he acted,” Gittins told the Star-News. “They made a deadly choice not to listen to a U.S. Marine at a time when they had already been identified as potential killers.”
The Washington Times said some press reporting on the case has wrongly stated that the SUV did not carry weapons. But a source close to the investigation said the car’s two seats were not bolted down — an insurgent tactic for hiding and quickly retrieving weapons.
Also the trunk had cans filled with nails and bolts, projectiles often used in improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.
Asking Bush for support
Meanwhile, Rep. Walter B. Jones, R-N.C., has sent a letter to President Bush, asking that he support Pantano.
“In an August 2004 executive order detailing your desire to strengthen our intelligence activities, you stated that to improve our ability to prevent terrorist threats, we are to ‘give the highest priority to the detection, prevention, disruption, preemption, and mitigation of the effects of terrorist activities against the territory, people, and interests of the United States of America,'” Jones wrote. “It is my strong belief that Lt. Pantano was serving in the interests of the United States when he engaged the enemy and sought to preempt their actions through any means necessary.”
Jones said Pantano’s situation could cause further questioning about the war in Iraq and may even lead some potential enlistees to second-guess their decision.
“The ongoing war in Iraq has taken a toll on this nation,” he said. “Families have been torn apart by the loss of a loved one who has paid the ultimate price in service to our country. Charging Lt. Pantano with murder is not only wrong, but is also detrimental to morale in America. This sends a potentially flawed message to those considering enlisting in the military.”
Jones also argued the case could cause other Marines to question their own actions, possibly endangering both their own life and the continued success of the war on terror.
Last month, the FBI began investigating threats against Pantano after a website, using an address nearly identical to one launched by the officer’s family, posted photographs depicting Pantano beheaded by a hooded jihadist, according to Gittins.
The lieutenant’s mother, Merry Pantano, told WND yesterday she is overwhelmed by the amount of support she is getting on behalf of her son, about 60 e-mails a day.
Many messages are from veterans, going back to World War II.
“This is not just for Ilario,” she said of her organization. “This is for other soldiers and Marines, as well, caught in this kind of combat-related situation where they have to face life and death decisions and then are forced to defend themselves in the court system.”