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Camilo's Retreat

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Like it or not, Camilo was going to war.

In late May 2003, Camilo took his squad to Al Asad, an old Iraqi Air Force base that had been obliterated by coalition forces. "Our mission was to help run a prisoner-of-war camp," Camilo says. "But we weren't allowed to call it that because we didn't have the Red Cross or military police there, so it was designated a detainee camp."

About two dozen prisoners had their heads hooded and their hands tied behind their backs, he claims. CIA interrogators were in abundance. So were former special-ops soldiers working as independent contractors.

Among the prisoners were two Iraqi men who had been found holding empty wood crates that allegedly carried explosives, Camilo says. There was also a prisoner who had been caught with a sniper rifle, which he claimed he was using to protect his sheep from thieves. "Later on, we learned that most Iraqis own rifles and pistols to defend themselves from rival tribes," Camilo says. "It took us a while to stop viewing every Iraqi with a weapon as an armed insurgent."

Late one night, six months before the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, Camilo alleges he and his squad witnessed and participated in torturing detained Iraqis. "It was not the same type of excessive abuse," Camilo says. "But that kind of humiliation was taking place from the very beginning."

Inside a holding cell, two American soldiers deprived four hooded prisoners of sleep for at least two days, he contends. In addition to insulting the detainees with racial epithets ("Get up, you goddamned Hajji") and expletives ("Up, motherfucker, up"), the Americans fooled the Iraqis by letting them sleep for 30 to 45 seconds and then awakening them, Camilo claims. One soldier banged a sledgehammer against the wall. A lieutenant put his pistol to the temple of a prisoner who was sobbing uncontrollably.

For the next six hours, Camilo and his men guarded the enemy combatants. "Some of the guys yelled at them to stay awake on my orders," Camilo says. "They used the sledgehammer but not the gun." Camilo contends he was afraid to criticize the treatment. "There were a lot of ways to justify what we were doing, and I used them all," he concedes.

"Abu Ghraib wasn't some isolated event involving a few bad apples. High government officials and nameless contractors were calling the shots."

Sgt. Naugle, Camilo's superior, says only part of Camilo's story is true. He denies crimes were committed at Al Asad. "Yes, there was sleep deprivation used," he says. "I don't know if you would consider that abuse considering you have terrorists cutting people's heads off."

By July 2003, the insurgents had intensified their attacks in Ar Ramadi. One day, an improvised bomb killed an Iraqi and injured seven others. One American soldier lost his leg and another his eye in the same attack. Soon Charlie Company's squad leaders received orders to block all the city's major intersections during curfew, a mission dubbed "Operation Shutdown."

Military leaders believed that attackers were coming from outside Ar Ramadi, but Camilo insists they were local. "They knew the lay of the land," he says. "They would escape into people's homes."

Operation Shutdown was a disaster from the get-go, Camilo explains. The first mistake, he asserts, was Lt. Col. Mirabile's order that the platoon squads follow the same procedure for three consecutive nights. "It gave away the element of surprise," Camilo relays. "He would constantly make us do things that made no sense. There was a lot of resentment against him." (Mirabile, who is currently a financial analyst in Miami's employee relations department, declined repeated requests for comment.)

On the third night of Operation Shutdown, an American soldier opened fire with his machine gun on an 18-wheeler that failed to stop at a roadblock, killing the civilian driver. No weapons or explosives were found in the truck.

On day four, Camilo's squad walked into a raging gunbattle at a roadblock that was being manned by two other squads from Charlie Company. Four soldiers, including a lieutenant, had been seriously injured when their Humvee was hit either by a rocket-propelled grenade or a mine. Shrapnel and bullets tore up one man's legs and ripped three fingers off another. Two others were cut in the arms and neck.

In response, at another checkpoint, American soldiers with a 50-caliber gun decapitated a man who was driving fast though a checkpoint. Riding in the passenger seat was the man's child, whom Camilo saw crying next to the corpse.

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Francisco Alvarado was born in Nicaragua and grew up in Miami, giving him unique insight into the Magic City and all its dark corners. An investigative reporter with a knack for uncovering corruption, Alvarado made his bones as a staff writer at Miami New Times and remains in dogged pursuit of the next juicy story.

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