By Elaine Hargrove-Simon, Silha Fellow and Bulletin Editor
On April 8, 2003, a M1A1 Abrams tank from the 4th Battalion 64th Armor
Regiment fired at what was believed to be an enemy lookout in the Palestine
Hotel in Baghdad where a number of Western journalists were staying. As
a result, two journalists, José Couso, a cameraman with the Telecinco
channel in Madrid, and Taras Protsyuk, a cameraman from Ukraine, were
killed in the incident. (See "Journalists Who Lost Their Lives" in this
issue of the Silha Bulletin.)
An investigative report, "Permission to Fire," compiled by Joel Campagna and Rhonda Roumani for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) concludes that the incident was avoidable, but not deliberate. Their report is available online at http://www.cpj.org/Briefings/2003/palestine_hotel/palestine_hotel.html.
Campagna and Roumani interviewed military and civilian eyewitnesses to the event and reviewed military and civilian statements, reports and video in order to compile their report. Their report describes how the 4th Battalion 64th Armor Regiment and Iraqi forces were fighting near a bridge crossing the Tigris River. The Palestine Hotel offered a good view of the fighting, and many journalists had gathered on the hotel's balconies to watch.
Chris Tomlinson, a reporter with the Associated Press who was embedded with the Regiment, was one of the eyewitnesses to the event interviewed for CPJ's investigative report. Tomlinson had also been monitoring the Regiment's radio communications from a U.S. command center established in Saddam Hussein's presidential palace located on the west side of the Tigris River. Tomlinson was able to hear the conversation among some of the Regiment's officers, including Lt. Col. Philip DeCamp, the Regiment's commander, and Capt. Philip Wolford, the officer who later admitted giving the order to fire.
According to Tomlinson, U.S. forces were attempting to discover the location of the enemy's "forward observer" - the person in charge of directing the enemy's ground forces or artillery fire. The military received a report stating that a person with binoculars was inside the Palestine Hotel and might have been directing the fighting against them. Tomlinson has said that just the day before, fighting had forced journalists to move from
the Al-Rashid Hotel to the Palestine Hotel, and he believed most of the commanders of U.S. forces were aware of the fact that the journalists had moved.
While looking for the "forward observer," brigade Cmdr. David Perkins approached Tomlinson and another reporter, Greg Kelly from Fox News. Knowing that journalists were in a hotel in the vicinity of the fighting, Perkins asked Tomlinson and Kelly if they could identify which of the buildings along the river housed the journalists. Tomlinson said he tried to call the Associated Press office in Dohar to obtain a description of the hotel, then call the journalists and ask them to hang bedsheets off their balconies so that the building would be identifiable to U.S. forces.
In the meantime, one of the tank officers radioed that he had seen someone with binoculars in a building on the east bank of the river. Following this report, Capt. Wolford gave the order to fire, and the Palestine Hotel was hit, killing Couso and Protsyuk. Both were taken to an unidentified hospital in Baghdad. Protsyuk later died of abdominal injuries. Couso, who had been wounded in his jaw and leg, died following surgery. Three other journalists were injured in the incident. A satellite dish technician, Paul Pasquale, was on the same balcony as Protsyuk. Two other journalists, Gulf bureau chief Samia Nakhoul and photographer Falek Kheiber, were on another balcony. All three journalists were on assignment with Reuters.
According to CPJ's investigative report, witnesses to the event say the amount of time between spotting the supposed forward observer and the order to fire varies from seconds to several minutes. When U.S. commanders realized the hotel had taken the hit, Tomlinson said that they screamed at one another angrily over their radios. DeCamp told Wolford, "You're not supposed to fire on the hotel." According to the CPJ report, DeCamp then drove his tank to where Wolford was located, and the two held a face-to-face conversation rather than using radio communications. Tomlinson was too far away to hear what they said.
The Associated Press later identified Sgt. Shawn Gibson as the soldier who actually fired the tank's shell. Later that day, CPJ wrote a letter to U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld which stated, "while sources in Baghdad have expressed deep skepticism about reports that U.S. forces were fired upon from the Palestine Hotel . . . the evidence suggests that the response of U.S. forces was disproportionate and therefore violated
international humanitarian law." CPJ's letter further called for "an immediate and thorough investigation into these incidents and to make the findings public."
On April 11, the Los Angeles Times quoted DeCamp as saying, "I'm sorry to say it, but I'm the guy who killed the journalists. I'm really sorry, and I feel badly for their families, but I had no choice. My soldiers' lives were in danger."
In an April 21 letter responding to Spain's request for an investigation into the matter, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell stated that the U.S. tank had fired on the hotel due to "the hostile fire appearing to come from a location later identified as the Palestine Hotel." According to the New York Times, Rafael Permuy, Couso's uncle, who is acting as spokesman for the cameraman's family, has also demanded an investigation
into the incident. Permuy, himself a major in the Spanish reserves, is further demanding that the U.S. military pay compensation to Couso's widow and children.
On May 28, the Associated Press reported that Pilar Hermoso, an attorney representing the Couso family, filed a lawsuit in Madrid's National Court against Wolford, DeCamp, and Gibson, accusing them of war crimes and murder. Hermoso said that the suit was filed there because Spanish law allows that court to try crimes committed against Spaniards outside the country. A suit was not filed with the International Criminal Court in the Hague
because the United States does not recognize the tribunal's authority over U.S. citizens.