July 19, 2004

Marine Who Had Been Missing in Iraq Denies He Deserted

By STEVE TWOMEY

In his first public remarks about why he disappeared in Iraq, Cpl. Wassef Ali Hassoun of the United States Marines said today that he had been "captured and held against my will" for nearly three weeks and had not deserted his unit to flee to his native Lebanon.

After reading his brief, televised remarks on a lawn near a gate at Quantico Marine Base in Virginia, Corporal Hassoun, 24, took no questions and departed quickly in a van.

In the days immediately after Corporal Hassoun's disappearance from a base in Iraq on June 20, a Marine officer had said that the corporal, a fluent Arabic-speaker whose family had emigrated to the United States, had deserted because he had been traumatized by seeing one of his sergeants blown apart by a shell. The officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he believed that Corporal Hassoun was then betrayed by Iraqi friends and delivered to Islamic extremists.

On July 8, Corporal Hassoun resurfaced at the American Embassy in a suburb of Beirut, exhausted and 20 pounds lighter, but otherwise in good health. But he provided no details publicly about his disappearance or how he managed to make his way from Iraq through Syria to Lebanon.

"I did not desert my post," he said today. "I was captured and held against my will by anti-coalition forces for 19 days." He added, "Once a marine, always a marine. Semper Fi."

The Naval Criminal Intelligence Service is investigating what happened, Lt. Col. David Lapan, a spokesman for the Second Marine Expeditionary Force, said after Corporal Hassoun's remarks. As yet, Colonel Lapan said, investigators have not talked to the corporal himself.

Corporal Hassoun's short statement, which he asked to give, was cleared by the Marines, although Colonel Lapan said the review was intended to prevent the release of classified information, not to determine the statement's veracity. He also said that the fact that Corporal Hassoun is being prepared to return to duty does not indicate the military has reached a conclusion about his disappearance.

The corporal, whose immediate family settled in West Jordan, Utah, arrived at Quantico from Germany on Saturday to begin a period of questioning and "repatriation." Colonel Lapan said that Corporal Hassoun would soon by transferred to his home base of Camp Lejeune, N.C., to continue that process, and will be accompanied by his brother.

At one point during his three-week absence, the Arab network Al Jazeera broadcast a video of a blindfolded man, identified as Corporal Hassoun, sitting on the ground in desert fatigues, a sword held over his head. In a statement, an obscure militant group calling itself The Islamic Reaction said its kidnappers had sneaked onto an American base, taken Corporal Hassoun and would behead him unless American forces released all Iraqi prisoners.

Several days later, a message appeared on two Web sites of another militant group, the Army of Ansar al-Sunna, saying it would soon release photos showing Corporal Hassoun's execution. But that same group quickly posted another message said the previous one was a fake.