WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Navy has launched a formal investigation into allegations that U.S. servicemen, on the second day of the Persian Gulf war, shot Iraqi soldiers as they tried to surrender to a naval combat team, Navy officials said yesterday.
It is the first major, publicly acknowledged inquiry that the military has launched into charges of wrongdoing by U.S. military personnel serving in the Persian Gulf. International law governing the conduct of war forbids any attack on troops attempting to surrender.
According to an anonymous letter received by the Navy, U.S. troops opened fire on Iraqi soldiers occupying some of the 11 Kuwaiti-owned oil platforms in the Persian Gulf, even though the Iraqis had raised white flags of surrender as choppers and speedboats from the U.S. warship Nicholas bore down on them.
Pentagon sources said the letter was believed to have been written by a sailor aboard the U.S. frigate.
The Navy conducted a preliminary investigation of the allegations and found sufficient grounds June 4 to initiate a formal probe, Capt. Kendall Pease said yesterday.
The inquiry by a three-member board is to be headed by Rear Adm.Douglas J. Katz, commander of the U.S. Atlantic Command's Cruiser-Destroyer Group 2 based in Charleston, S.C., who served in the gulf.
Findings "could certainly lead to recommendations for further action," Admiral Pease said, including court-martial proceedings against U.S. military personnel.
Five Iraqi soldiers were killed and three were wounded in the Jan. 18 nighttime raid, which was conducted by U.S. and Kuwaiti troops operating from the Nicholas. It was not known whether any of the deaths or casualties could be attributed to the alleged misconduct.
The operation yielded 23 Iraqi prisoners of war, the first of thousands of POWs captured by allied forces during six weeks of fighting.
The inquiry will be conducted primarily in the Nicholas' home port of Charleston. The Nicholas participated in New York's gulf war celebration Monday and is expected to arrive in Charleston early next week.
Officials would not say whether the letter that prompted the investigation gave the names of any individuals who may have ignored the alleged Iraqi attempts to surrender. But Admiral Pease said the formal probe would not focus on the actions of any named individuals.
Navy officials said the formal probe would require witnesses to make sworn statements.