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Hassoun torn by internal conflict

Published September 2, 2005 1:05 am

Files: Records indicate Utah Marine was torn between military loyalty and Muslim beliefs

Files: Records indicate Utah Marine had a hard time balancing military duty and Muslim beliefs

Utah Marine's story at a glance

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2005, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

At various times leading up to his disappearance from Iraq's Camp Fallujah, Utah Marine Cpl. Wassef Ali Hassoun seemed increasingly torn between his duty as a Marine and that of a Muslim.

After he failed to show up for guard duty and others in his unit discovered his prayer rug missing, they saw it as a sure sign of how the struggle ended.

"Once we saw he took his prayer rug, we knew he was gone," a Marine in Hassoun's unit told investigators.

It was confirmation of a string of clues leading up to his June 20, 2004, disappearance, as outlined in investigative records obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune through the Freedom of Information Act.

In the days before he vanished, Hassoun had begun asking Iraqis working on the base if they could help him get through the gate, and asked another translator if he could hide out in his home. He allegedly threatened to "walk out the front gate and leave."

Hassoun took a $350 advance from his paycheck, asked another Marine for $200 more and was seen burning personal papers. He was last seen on the base aboard a bus with longer-than-normal hair in the company of several Iraqis after failing to report for guard duty.

Hassoun's brother, Mohamad, dismissed the interviews, saying the military assumed Hassoun had fled the base and the investigation was prejudiced "from the get-go."

"All these stupid statements are hearsay," said Mohamad Hassoun, sounding agitated in a phone interview Thursday as he discussed the charges in the report. "They have not one shred of evidence that proves he wasn't taken off the base."

He also said any suggestion the missing prayer rug proves a premeditated plan to leave the base is absolutely ridiculous.

The records paint Hassoun as a mediocre Marine increasingly distressed by the war and frustrated with his situation. They also reflect the thoroughness of the investigators dispatched to find Hassoun. The scores of documents lay out dozens of interviews conducted with Hassoun's fellow Marines, interrogators, contractors and a family member.

Philip Cave, a former Navy judge advocate from Alexandria, Va., says the scope of the report falls outside the norm. The extensive effort was taken, he suggests, "because of the notoriety and embarrassment [Hassoun] caused the Marine Corps."

Cave had talked to Hassoun and his family about representing the Marine before Hassoun fled in December.

Hassoun had been assigned as a translator in Human Intelligence Exploitation Team-9, which conducted interrogations of Iraqi prisoners or interviewed civilians to try to collect intelligence to break up insurgent rings or prevent attacks.

He had been missing for days when video of the blindfolded soldier with a sword held above his head was aired. Those in his unit immediately suspected the footage was fake, the investigators' reports said, because Hassoun was clean-shaven with a haircut and no armed captors were shown, as had been the case with other hostage videos.

"I thought, f--- him. If he's caught by the terrorists, he did it to himself and to us," a Marine in his unit told investigators. "He deserted on us. The team felt betrayed."

But there was concern that the missing corporal could be giving up sensitive intelligence information that would get informants killed.

"I thought if Hassoun really is in the hands of the Mooj [short for Mujahideen, a name given to Muslim fighters], it wasn't an accident. Now he's set us up," the Marine said.

Hassoun mysteriously surfaced in Lebanon in the following month and was later charged with desertion, but disappeared again before his trial was scheduled to begin in January. Ed Buice of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service said his whereabouts remain unknown.

Hassoun's mug shot with the alias "Jafar" still is featured prominently on the NCIS Most Wanted list, although a spokesman at Camp Lejeune, N.C., where Hassoun was stationed, said no effort is underway to track the fugitive Marine.

"We're not digging into this or pursuing it any further," said Major Cliff Gilmore, public affairs officer for the 4th Marine Expeditionary Brigade, although the probe could resume if new leads are generated.

Gilmore said much of the information in the investigative report could be used against Hassoun at trial if he is captured and "it would be really inappropriate for me or the command to lend color to that."

Despite reports suggesting Hassoun may have fled to his native Lebanon, information confirming his location has trickled to a halt, according to Juliet Wurr, spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Beirut.

Proving himself: Hassoun joined the Marines after seeing a recruiter in the mall following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He had been disparaged by co-workers at his job and, according to a soldier in his unit, "felt he needed to join the service after 9/11 because he wanted to rid the stigma of being an Arab in the United States."

He received mediocre marks on his performance reviews and showed little interest in becoming a better Marine, his superior told investigators.

During interrogations, Hassoun objected to intelligence-gathering techniques that he felt degraded the Iraqis. He would not raise his voice during interrogations of Sheikhs or Imams and in one instance refused to translate a question dealing with Islam, according to interviews with the interrogators.

One HET-9 member told superiors that he no longer wanted to work with Hassoun because he couldn't trust him.

Hassoun was reprimanded earlier in the war for statements he made that were viewed as supporting attacks against Israel staged by Hezbollah - a group considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. government, but which Hassoun saw as a social service organization that funded schools and hospitals.

A fellow soldier asked what Hassoun would do if Israel attacked Lebanon, and Hassoun told him he would leave the Marines and fight against Israel.

A growing distance: In the weeks leading up to his disappearance, Hassoun's fellow Marines said he had distanced himself from the unit, often spending nights in the barbershop, where he enjoyed the air conditioning and the company of the Iraqi barbers, who called him Jafar.

One of the barbers frequently counseled Hassoun on Islamic teachings. A contractor said Hassoun had recounted how the barber said it would be better for Hassoun to kill Americans than Iraqis. The barber denied making such statements.

Several Marines noted that he would listen to Arabic "propaganda" CD's of speeches in mosques or other programs, including one "calling for jihad against the enemy," although the soldier that heard it said he did not recall who the enemy was in the speech.

Some in the unit questioned Hassoun's allegiances, reporting him as being "anti-U.S." or saying "This guy's calling the U.S. military the bully and occupier."

On one patrol, Hassoun refused to point the gun mounted to the team's vehicle at a group of Iraqis, a contractor said. Hassoun left the gun, but returned to it when ordered to do so, firing well over the heads of the Iraqis.

His fellow Marines and acquaintances said he was troubled by the death of the unit's gunnery sergeant, but they did not believe that was what prompted him to flee.

Instead, they believed Hassoun was upset that an earlier request for leave to attend his wedding had been denied, and then word came that the unit's deployment in Iraq might be extended seven months through February 2005. Hassoun threatened repeatedly to walk away.

"I remember him saying he missed his wedding the last time. He said 'This is bull----. I will go to Lebanon, I'm not kidding,' " said a corporal in Hassoun's unit. "I thought he was blowing off steam, not serious. We didn't take him seriously."

Another said that "Hassoun said he did not care if he got in trouble or if he faced a court-martial. I did not think he was joking."

The final day: Hours before he vanished, Hassoun left his tent carrying a black backpack and uncharacteristically smiling and energetic. He took a Humvee to the medic's tent, where the vehicle was found later. One Marine spotted him aboard a blue and white bus with several Iraqis, but thought nothing of it. When he failed to show up for guard duty, a fellow Marine stood the post for him. It wasn't until the next morning he was discovered missing.

Suspicions were raised about Hassoun's brother, who, according to word on the base, had deserted the Lebanese army and drove trucks from Syria to Iraq.

Mohamad Hassoun said that the rumor about the other brother, like other information in the report, is patently false and would not stand up in court if his brother were to return and face the charges against him.

But Mohamad Hassoun, who had publicly encouraged his brother to turn himself in, said Thursday that Hassoun should only return if the government agrees to "play by the rules."

"They can come up with any charges against anybody right now and lock them up and throw away the key," he added. "You are living in a dictatorship country. They fight to bring democracy [in Iraq] but they forget about democracy over here."

Cpl. Wassef Ali Hassoun has been listed on the Naval Criminal Investigative Service's Most Wanted fugitive list since January. Hassoun was last seen in Salt Lake City in late December. His whereabouts remain unknown. He disappeared from his base near Fallujah, Iraq, in June 2004, resurfacing the following month in Beirut, Lebanon. Hassoun was charged in December with desertion and theft. A hearing to determine if he should face court-martial was postponed. But on Jan. 5 the Marine Corps declared him a deserter.