Iraqi appears in Guantánamo court on war crimes charges

An Iraqi prisoner who the United States has said reported to one of the Taliban released in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was charged with war crimes Wednesday calling him a senior al-Qaida terrorist.

Abd al Hadi al Iraqi, 53, got to Guantánamo in 2007 from CIA custody. Wednesday, he came to court from the prison’s clandestine Camp 7 lockup in a traditional white tunic, trousers, turban and chest-long salt-and-pepper beard — his first public sighting since his capture in Turkey in October 2006.

He looked significantly older than his pre-capture photo and told the judge, Navy Capt. J. Kirk Waits, that he wanted a civilian attorney as well as his Pentagon-assigned military lawyers “because of what is going on in Afghanistan and Iraq,” according to a court-appointed Arabic-English linguist.

In an apparent reference to the ongoing bloodshed in both his adopted and native nations, he added, “It’s very destructive from your government.”

Hadi’s charge sheet accuses him of classic war crimes punishable by life in prison — targeting medical workers and civilians as well as foreign troops in Afghanistan — of denying quarter, attacking protected property, using treachery or perfidy in a series of attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan between about 2003 and 2004.

He’s not charged with murder, but the charging document alleges his troops attacked U.S. targets in Afghanistan that killed unnamed U.S., British, Canadian, German and Norwegian troops and a United Nations aid worker at at various times.

It also accuses him of helping the Taliban blow up the monumental Buddha statutes in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage site, in March 2001.

In 2009, the Justice Department defended his indefinite detention in federal court by describing him also as a “a military leader for the Taliban” and member of Osama bin Laden’s inner circle.

The distinction is especially significant in the aftermath of last month’s release of five Taliban prisoners from medium-security, communal confinement.

The 2009 federal court filing, based on Guantánamo intelligence and interrogations, describes him as both an al-Qaida insider dating to 1998 or 1999 in Sudan and the deputy commander of the Taliban’s 22nd Division. It says he handled logistics and supply issues, and listed Mullah Mohammed Fazl, as in his chain of command from the Taliban Ministry of Defense. Fazl was among the five traded for Bergdahl May 31.

“If you would say he’s Taliban, we would argue he’s a lawful combatant,” said his Pentagon-paid defense counsel, Army Lt. Col. Christopher Callen, on Tuesday. “It seems at the start of the war they conflated the two,” then adopted a policy of “pick one.”

Hadi’s charges include conspiring with Bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders to commit terrorism. He did not enter a plea, which by war court custom doesn’t happen until start of trial. No trial date was set.

Countered Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, the chief war crimes prosector: “He served as liaison between al-Qaida and the Taliban. He commanded al-Qaida insurgency efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan, during which he supported, supplied, funded and directed attacks against U.S. and coalition forces.”

Hadi’s attorneys describe Hadi, an Arab native of Mosul, as a courteous former non-commissioned officer in the Iraqi Army who handled logistics and administrative functions during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. They said he fled his homeland for a new life in Afghanistan after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, and before the U.S.-led Operation Desert Storm.

He doesn’t hunger strike, according to his lawyers, is pious, prays five times daily and has depleted the static, no-new-books library at his secret lock-up, according to his lawyer.

They describe him as more like a Taliban soldier than a terrorist, who has laughed out loud at the portrayal of him as any kind of “commander.” They say they’ve formally asked the Pentagon to provide them with documents that discuss how a senior U.S. official decided to sign off on his charges on the first work day after the Taliban trade.

“He does not hate Americans,” said a paralegal on his case, Navy Chief Jennifer Bailey.

“He doesn’t like communists, either,” added lead defense lawyer Callen. “He’s our kind of Arab. He didn’t like Saddam Hussein. His life would’ve probably gone a bit better had he become a Baathist.”

He has an Afghan wife, four children and family back in Iraq, too.

When he got to Guantánamo in April 2007, the Pentagon said he “worked directly with the Taliban to determine responsibility and lines of communication between Taliban and al-Qaida leaders in Afghanistan, specifically with regard to the targeting of U.S. Forces.”

Wednesday, chief prosecutor Martins would not comment on whether he knew if Hadi was considered a candidate for last month’s prisoner exchange with the Taliban, or whether the Taliban asked for his release, too.

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