WASHINGTON -- Lawmakers are seeking a reprieve for three Navy SEALs facing court martial because one allegedly punched a suspect in an ambush killing of U.S. contractors in Iraq.
One of the SEALs is reported to have punched Ahmed Hashim Abed during Abed's September arrest, said Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif.
Rather than accept a reprimand, the sailors chose to fight the charges in a military court. Their appeal greatly raises the stakes because a guilty finding could bring stiff punishment.
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A letter Hunter is circulating in the House of Representatives said prosecuting the three SEALs "seems to us to be an overreaction by the command."
Hunter, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said the men could face loss of rank, up to one year of confinement, a bad conduct discharge and forfeiture of a portion of their pay each month for up to a year.
About 20 lawmakers have signed the letter to Gates, including House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio. The letter is to be delivered Friday afternoon.
"The Navy SEALs could have been slapped on the wrist for this _ unfairly then, too. But they said, 'We want to let the facts be known. This is baloney that we're being tried for this at all,'" Hunter said.
The plight of the three men seems to be gaining attention on Capitol Hill. On Wednesday, Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., sent a similar letter to Gates, asking the secretary to give the case his personal attention. He said it appeared to him that highly skilled personnel have been removed from the war effort "due to a fat lip and some slanderous allegations by one of the most-wanted individuals in Iraq."
Lt. Col. Eric Butterbaugh, a Pentagon spokesman, said officials are aware of Ensign's letter and that the department will respond to the senator. He said the department doesn't comment on the content of those communications. He also declined to comment on the lawmakers' contention that the case involving the three men is an overreaction.
The Navy SEALs involved are Special Warfare Operators 2nd Class Matthew McCabe and Jonathan Keefe, and Special Warfare Operator 1st Class Julio Huertas. The letter circulating in the House said that prosecution of the sailors would have a negative impact on others in the military who risk their lives in dangerous, often ambiguous situations.
According to Special Operations Command Central, McCabe is charged with assault, dereliction of duty and making a false official statement; Keefe is charged with dereliction of duty and making a false official statement; and Huertas is charged with dereliction of duty, making a false official statement and impeding an official investigation.
"It appears from all accounts that these SEALs are exceptional sailors, demonstrated by the fact that each had recently been advanced in rank," the letter said. "They captured a terrorist who had planned an attack that not only killed Americans but also maimed and mutilated their bodies."
Abed had evaded capture since the ambush that killed four Blackwater USA contractors in March 2004. The burned bodies of two of the victims in the attack were hung on a bridge over the Euphrates River.
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