LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — An Iraqi refugee accused of plotting to help terrorists back home may himself have been an insurgent during the war. When he goes on trial this month, several U.S. soldiers will be watching from the gallery who suspect his roadside bombs may have killed their comrades in Iraq in 2005.
Mohanad Shareef Hammadi, 24, is scheduled for trial Aug. 28, but not in connection with the battlefield deaths of six Pennsylvania National Guardsmen seven years ago. Instead, Hammadi and another Iraqi refugee living in Kentucky, 30-year-old Waad Ramadan Alwan, were charged with trying to send weapons and cash back to al-Qaida in Iraq after they came to the U.S. Alwan has pleaded guilty.
Several current and former soldiers from the same National Guard unit believe Hammadi and Alwan could have had a hand in two roadside bombings that killed six of their buddies in August 2005, when their unit was stationed near the city of Bayji in the volatile Sunni Triangle north of Baghdad. Those six were among 85 U.S. military deaths in Iraq that month.
Documents reviewed by The Associated Press show Hammadi and Alwan were insurgents in the same area around Bayji at the time the Pennsylvanians' Task Force Dragoon was stationed there and hit.
"It's going to be extremely hard to hold my temper, extremely hard to keep cool," said former Sgt. Brandon Miller, one of several former members of the task force who say they plan to attend the trial. Miller, an apartment maintenance manager in Chadds Ford, Pa., was awarded the Purple Heart after surviving a separate roadside bomb blast that destroyed the Humvee he was riding in in Bayji.
Miller and Staff Sgt. Joshua Hedetniemi say the men believe there's a chance Hammadi planted the roadside bombs that killed and injured their fellow soldiers, or fired bullets at them as snipers.
"A lot of the time, there's not a face to put with the actions, there's not a tangible enemy," Hedetniemi said. "It's very tough to pin down that type of enemy."
Hedetniemi said, based on the publicly available evidence and the timeline of his unit's deployment in Iraq, he is certain Alwan and Hammadi were among the insurgents who attacked his unit.
"There's no doubt he was in the same area we were," Hedetniemi told The Associated Press. "The evidence suggests that."
Multiple sources place Task Force Dragoon in the same violent area where Alwan and Hammadi told an FBI informant they worked two years into the American-led war. Those sources include motions filed in court, criminal complaints and indictments of Alwan and Hammadi, search warrants for the two men's shared apartment and computers, media accounts of the task force's deployment and interviews with soldiers.
Neither the U.S. Attorney's office in Louisville nor the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., have publicly identified any unit they believe Alwan and Hammadi attacked and would not say if the pair was involved with attacks on the Pennsylvania National Guard unit.
Eugene Fidell, co-founder of the National Institute of Military Justice who teaches military law at Yale Law School, said it would be possible, but tough, to bring murder charges against someone for killing a soldier in a war zone. Fidell added that definitively showing Hammadi and Alwan attacked this unit and took part in the killing of at least six soldiers would be equally tough.
U.S. law has provisions that allow for such charges, but Fidell said he's never seen that type of case brought against a one-time insurgent.
"I think these cases are rarer than hen's teeth," Fidell said. "This is about as inconvenient a venue for doing proper forensic investigation as I can imagine."
Court documents say Alwan and Hammadi worked as insurgents in Bayji, about 130 miles north of Baghdad. It was an area where former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had a base of support, starting shortly after the invasion in 2003.
Alwan told a confidential informant working for the FBI that as part of his work he filled roadside bombs with ball bearings, nails, even gravel, and drew diagrams to show how it is done. He also bragged about repeatedly killing Americans in Iraq, saying he was very good with a sniper rifle and that his "lunch and dinner would be an American."
Alwan told an FBI informant in Bowling Green in 2011 that prior to one Humvee explosion, he had planted improvised explosive devices near a Bayji street detour.
Both the Iraqis and the soldiers described the area as the main road used by American convoys in Bayji.
The Pennsylvania National Guard's Alpha Company of the First Battalion of the 111th Infantry, which included Hedetniemi, lost six soldiers in two separate roadside attacks in the area in August 2005.
Sgt. Brahim Jeffcoat, 25, of Philadelphia, and Spc. Kurt Krout, 43, of Spinnerstown, Pa., died Aug. 6, 2005, when their vehicle struck a roadside bomb near Balad, about 70 miles south of Bayji.
Gennaro Pellegrini Jr., a 31-year-old Philadelphia police officer; Spc. Francis J. Straub, 24, of Philadelphia; Pfc. John Kulick, 35, of Jenkintown, Pa.; and Pfc. Nathaniel DeTample, 19, of Morrisville, Pa., died three days later, when their armored Humvee drove over a culvert containing a bomb and they came under enemy fire near Bayji.
Miller was back in Pennsylvania by then and attended all six funerals.
"It was a rough day, but it was well worth it," Miller said.
Alwan and Hammadi each immigrated to the United States in 2009 after gaining refugee status. Court records do not explain why they were granted that status. For reasons that are also unclear from court records, the FBI started a probe of Alwan in August 2010, using a confidential informant to record conversations with Alwan about a plan to send money and weapons to a fictional al-Qaida operative in Iraq.
The FBI also linked a fingerprint found on an unexploded roadside bomb to Alwan. The two were arrested in May 2011 when the FBI brought the sting to a close.
Hedetniemi and Miller said another soldier ran across the two Iraqi's names and their links to the Bayji area when they scanned Google for news about Task Force Dragoon. They found an Associated Press story about Alwan and Hammadi being charged in Kentucky. After reading the details, Hedetniemi said, they realized that Alwan and Hammadi were fighting in the same area and at the same time as the task force.
Hedetniemi, of East Norton, Pa., said he's spoken with the FBI in Louisville about his time in Bayji, even though investigators wouldn't directly confirm Alwan and Hammadi attacked his unit.
"They were super, super cool in giving me as much information as their operational security could," Hedetniemi said. "It wasn't really a formal interview. It was a friendly telephone conference."
Since then, Hedetniemi and Miller said, emotions have run from elated to concerned to angry.
"I was a little bit worried these guys could get into our country so easily," said Hedetniemi, who now works as a recruiter. "Luckily, these guys never got a chance to do anything stupid."
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