FORT BRAGG, N.C. – A sergeant's attack on his own colleagues in the 101st Airborne Division (search) in Kuwait sidelined key personnel the unit needed for its assignment in the invasion of Iraq, a commander testified Monday.
"Everybody knew this would be a big fight," Col. Ben Hodges testified Monday at a sentencing hearing for Sgt. Hasan Akbar (search), convicted in a grenade and rifle attack that killed two soldiers and wounded 14. "I never dreamed my first casualties would occur inside Camp Pennsylvania and they would be caused by one of my own soldiers."
Hodges commanded the 101st's 1st Brigade Combat Team and was among those wounded in Akbar's attack. He testified for the prosecution, which is seeking a death sentence for Akbar, 34.
Hodges, who suffered a minor shrapnel wound, was the first witness called by prosecutors, who opted not to make an opening statement in the sentencing phase.
"I took it personal that I'd lost — I don't want to be overdramatic about it — two of my guys," he said.
Hodges said Akbar's attack took out of action key personnel responsible for planning troop movements. He said that resulted in the brigade being slow to isolate the city of Najaf, allowing some Iraqi fighters to escape.
"I lost three or four positions that were the worst possible ones we could have lost," Hodges said.
Akbar was convicted last week by the unanimous vote of a 15-person jury, which deliberated 2½ hours before finding him guilty of two counts of premeditated murder and three counts of attempted murder.
After jurors hear from prosecution witnesses, the defense is likely to call witnesses and then the jury will retire to its deliberation room a second time to ponder Akbar's sentence. He could face either life in prison or death.
Akbar's father, John Akbar of Seattle, said outside the court building that he went to church over the weekend and prayed that his son's life would be spared. The father is expected to testify for the defense.
Before the start of testimony Monday, the military judge overseeing the case said he would not allow prosecutors to introduce evidence of a fight Akbar had with a military police officer in the court building last month. Akbar secreted a weapon in an office and stabbed the MP in the neck while in the restroom, but the judge said that "opportunistic stabbing" didn't show a pattern of violence.
The defense has said Akbar carried out the attack but was too mentally ill to have premeditated it — a necessary condition for a death sentence. Now, the defense has the task of persuading the jurors — all of whom said they could vote for a death sentence — to spare Akbar's life.
On the prosecution side, soldiers wounded in the late-night ambush were expected to describe in more detail how they felt emotionally and physically during the attack the night of March 22-23, 2003, at Camp Pennsylvania in Kuwait. The troops were getting ready to join in the invasion of Iraq, which had be launched March 20.
Relatives of the two soldiers killed in the grenade attack — Army Capt. Christopher Seifert, 27, and Air Force Maj. Gregory Stone, 40 — also could be called to the stand.
If sentenced to death, Akbar would be the sixth person on military death row at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.