Army charges sergeant with stealing car

Sunday, July 25, 2004

The directive at the core of U.S. reconstruction efforts in Iraq was simple: Win hearts and minds.

But supporters of one soldier, Sgt. 1st Class James Williams, say Army efforts to win the good will of Iraqis ended with charges that could send him to prison.

Williams, 37, is accused of carjacking at gunpoint a sport utility vehicle driven by the son of an influential sheik in Mosul, Iraq, in April 2003 -- less than a week before President Bush declared an end to major combat.

But Williams' defense says the vehicle was properly "commandeered" under the military's wartime rules of engagement after two of the platoon's Humvees broke down.

Williams is to appear Monday at Fort Campbell in Kentucky for a court-martial on charges of armed robbery and willful dereliction of duty. The father of two and veteran of both Iraq wars faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted.

"I think it's important to them to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people, and I think Jim, in addition to a lot of other people, are being used," said Alice Winebarger, Williams' sister. "The Army should be supporting my brother, not turning its back on him."

Others claim that Williams was simply following orders to find a vehicle to replace one of the Humvees. The Army has said his actions amounted to robbery.

"The accused's actions were an unjustified and indefensible criminal act of robbery," said a statement released by the 101st Airborne Division.

Another soldier already has been convicted in the case and sentenced to prison. A lieutenant also faces a court-martial.

According to court papers filed by Williams' attorney, the SUV was weaving in and out of traffic and stopped only after being chased for five miles by another sergeant in Williams' platoon.

When Williams approached the scene, Staff Sgt. Alberto Lozano had the driver on the ground, the documents said. Williams then ordered the soldiers to leave because a crowd was gathering, and Lozano drove the SUV away, according the defense papers.

The SUV was used for several days by the command staff in plain view, said Bernard Casey, Williams' attorney.

The U.S. government later paid Sheik Ahmed W. Al-Faisal $32,000 for the vehicle.

"There is no evidence that I am aware of that Sgt. Williams at any time thought he was doing anything wrong, and that at all times the evidence is he was doing what was expected of him under the circumstances," Casey said.

Prosecutors, however, have said special orders were given in Mosul forbidding the use of civilian vehicles. Williams' brigade commander, Col. Joseph Anderson, has testified that the rules of engagement had been changed to prohibit it.

The defense said Williams was never told that.

Winebarger, Williams' sister, believes the only mistake Williams made was not giving a receipt when the soldiers left in the SUV, which they had been instructed to do early in the war if they took a civilian vehicle for military purposes.

"There were Iraqi people gathering around," Winebarger said. "Instead of giving a receipt, he left. He was able to do what he needed to do without anybody getting hurt. He should be applauded."

Williams, of rural Westmoreland County, Va., and a member of the 326th Engineer Battalion, was not available to comment, his attorney said.

In October, Lozano was found guilty of robbery and making a false statement. He was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison and received a bad conduct discharge from the Army.

A court martial for Lt. Bradley Havlik is scheduled Aug. 9 on charges including being an accessory to robbery. His attorney did not return a call for comment.

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