U.S. soldier says Iraq war 'not moral': Tells refugee board he witnessed unpunished civilian killings, attacks
(By Peter Brieger, originally published in the Ottawa Citizen, March 31 2006)
TORONTO - A U.S. soldier who fled to Canada after a tour of duty in Iraq recalled grisly images yesterday of his fellow soldiers playing soccer with the head of a dead Iraqi, raiding the homes of "innocent" civilians and shooting at a car with an unarmed man and young boy inside.
Testifying at the Immigration and Refugee Board in Toronto, Joshua Key said his unit was told to look for evidence of weapons, but found nothing around the decapitated bodies of four Iraqis and their "shot-up" truck.
Comments from soldiers already at the site on the banks of the Euphrates River suggested those killings were not provoked by enemy fire, he said.
"They said they messed up, they screwed up," Mr. Key told the board, adding that some soldiers were kicking the dead man's head around. "The next day I was told it was none of my concern."
After the hearing, Mr. Key, who served eight months as a combat engineer, shied away from saying whether he killed anyone during his military service.
"I did what I had to do to stay alive," he told reporters. "I was ... in combat situations for 85 per cent of the time I was there."
Mr. Key testified that during a routine traffic checkpoint, U.S. soldiers fired on a car, killing the man inside and severely wounding a 10-year-old boy, he said.
Another time, when an Iraqi civilian made a rude foot gesture at U.S. troops, a squadron leader responded by shooting most of the man's foot off with his M-16 rifle, Mr. Key told the board.
"It was like people could kill if they wanted to -- everything's justified," he said. "We were told if you feel harmed or threatened, you shoot first and ask questions later."
The 27-year-old from Oklahoma is one of 20 war resisters who are appealing to the refugee board to remain in Canada.
About 200 other U.S. soldiers are believed to be living in Canada after skipping out on military service.
Last month, Brandon Hughey and Jeremy Hinzman appealed to the Federal Court of Canada after the refugee board denied their claim. A decision has not been released.
But unlike some of the war resisters living in Canada, Mr. Key saw combat in Iraq.
And what he saw made him sick, said the father of three small children who now works as a welder in northern British Columbia.
Within a week of his arrival in Iraq, Mr. Key said he began to question the war. His doubts grew after he learned the U.S. never found the weapons of mass destruction used to justify the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime.
When soldiers raided homes to flush out suspected terrorists, guns were pointed at entire families and the men were often whisked away for interrogation, Mr. Key said. Many were "never seen again," he added.
Soldiers stole valuables from those homes, such as jewelry, but almost nothing incriminating was ever found, Mr. Key said.
When questioned by a refugee protection officer, Mr. Key said he was told international law and the Geneva Convention, which outlines treatment for prisoners of war, were only "guidelines."
"There were many, many other civilian killings people should have been held responsible for," he said.
Mr. Key said he is not a conscientious objector, although he claims the military broke a promise not to send him overseas from the Colorado base where he was stationed.
"Are you somebody who doesn't believe in war?" asked Mr. Key's lawyer Jeffry House.
"No, I do believe there have been moral wars, but not this one," Mr. Key replied.
When he returned to the U.S. for a two-week leave in November 2003, he said he and his family left the military base and kept a "low profile" before crossing into Canada one year ago.
Asked why he didn't ask for a dishonourable discharge, Mr. Key said a military lawyer told him he had two choices: return to Iraq or go to jail.
"You learn real fast that, after you sign on the dotted line, there's nothing you can do," he said. "You're military property."