BAGHDAD -- An American officer has been stripped of his command after pleading guilty to assaulting an Iraqi detainee during interrogation, the military announced yesterday.
A disciplinary proceeding found that the actions by Lieutenant Colonel Allen West were serious enough to "merit a court-martial." But the military said in a statement that mitigating circumstances -- specifically, the "stressful environment" of combat -- and West's distinguished service record prompted the Army to instead relieve West of his command, fine him $5,000, and order him back to the United States, where he will be allowed to retire.
"Frustration and anger overcame his professional ethics and personal values, and he performed what he knew to be illegal and immoral acts," said the statement issued by the Army's Fourth Infantry Division.
During a closed-door tribunal Friday in the town of Tikrit, West was found guilty of three counts of aggravated assault and a single count of communicating a threat. The ruling was issued after West pleaded guilty to misconduct.
He is the most senior officer to receive disciplinary action since the start of the war. West served as a battalion commander with the Fourth Infantry Division and was in charge of about 800 soldiers operating in one of the most dangerous regions in Iraq. For the past few months, he has been confined to the division's base in Tikrit.
The military said that during an interrogation of an Iraqi police officer Aug. 20 near the village of Taji, north of Baghdad, West fired his pistol near the head of the prisoner, threatened to kill him, and allowed his troops to beat the man. The detainee, Yahya Jhodri Hamoodi, was suspected of having knowledge of a planned attack on US troops in the Sunni Triangle, the region north and west of Baghdad that has been a hotbed of anti-US resistance. Scores of soldiers have been killed or wounded in bomb, rocket, and small-arms ambushes in the area.
West acknowledged last month before a military tribunal that his actions were wrong, but said that at the time of the incident he believed he was protecting the lives of his troops. "If it's about the lives of my men and their safety, I'd go through hell with a gasoline can," West said during the earlier proceeding.
The disciplinary action against West was ordered by General Raymond Odierno, commander of the Fourth Infantry Division.
The military said that through his actions against the detainee, West "disobeyed laws, ignored orders . . . and mortgaged future discipline in his unit. Without discipline, there is no trust, no cohesion, and no higher purpose for which we fight."
But the military also stated, "while his crimes merit a court-martial, mitigating factors were considered, including the stressful environment . . . and Lieutenant Colonel West's record as an officer and commander."
In Baghdad, meanwhile, the US general in charge of military operations in Iraq did not dispute reports that American officials have met with Israelis to discuss how to combat insurgents whose methods are similar to those used by Palestinian fighters, including suicide attacks and heavy use of hidden roadside bombs.
Asked during a news conference whether US forces would adopt Israel's controversial tactics of "targeted killings" -- assassinations of militant leaders -- and the arrests of family members of suspected guerrillas, Army Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez said: "It's a different time, a different place, a different country. We can be a ferocious army, but we can also be a benevolent army. And we're not going to change."
US forces have bulldozed portions of houses belonging to relatives of suspected insurgents and have detained wives and grown children of fugitives suspected of terrorist attacks.
In a case that has drawn criticism from human rights groups, US forces on Nov. 26 arrested a wife and daughter of Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, a former aide to Saddam Hussein accused of organizing guerrilla attacks against US troops in the Sunni Triangle.
An officer with the Fourth Infantry Division, which arrested the women during a raid in Samarra, called their detention "like that of a material witness, a person who might have information but also might flee."
But human rights groups say family members should not be incarcerated as "bargaining chips" to persuade fugitives to give up.
"If the purpose of these arrests is to exert pressure on suspects and force their surrender, there is cause for grave concern," said William F. Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA.
Schulz said the Dhouri detentions evoke "worrying echoes of Iraq's past, where the intimidation and detention of family members was a pervasive practice of the security services."