Spanish Court Seeks Arrest of U.S. Soldiers in Hotel Attack

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Laszlo Balogh / Reuters

A rose lies in front on barbed wire of a memorial poster for Jose Couso, a Spanish television cameraman killed by a U.S. tank shell which hit Baghdad's Palestine hotel

In the seven years since she watched her colleague José Couso bleed to death, Olga Rodríguez has experienced many ups and downs in her quest to bring those responsible to justice. But Thursday was one of her good days. On the morning of July 29, Spain's National Court announced that it has re-issued an international arrest warrant against three U.S. soldiers it implicates in an attack on Baghdad's Hotel Palestine, where Rodriguez and Couso, along with dozens of other journalists, were based during the Iraq war.

"As a friend, as a reporter, and as a citizen, I'm very pleased," Rodríguez tells TIME. "It's vital — for the sake of journalism and the sake of democracy — that this investigation go through to the end."

On April 8, 2003, one day before U.S. troops officially captured Baghdad, a U.S. tank fired a single incendiary shell on the hotel, killing Couso, a cameraman for Spain's Telecinco television station, and Reuters journalist Taras Protsyuk. Since then, Couso's colleagues and family have pursued a criminal investigation against the U.S. military. Their initial case, filed in May 2003, was eventually dismissed by Spain's National Court, which cited a lack of jurisdiction. But when the higher Supreme Court reviewed the case in December 2006, it disagreed. The case was returned to the National Court, which in 2007 issued arrest warrants against Sgt. Thomas Gibson, the tank sergeant who fired the shell, Captain Philip Wolford, who ordered the attack, and commanding officer Colonel Philip deCamp. A year later, the court again shelved the case, saying it had insufficient evidence to proceed with an investigation.

But on July 26, Spain's Supreme Court again ruled that the case should continue. On Thursday morning, the National Court took up the investigation for the third time, again ordering the three men to appear in its courtroom or face extradition.

Why the revival? According to lawyer Enrique Santiago, who is representing Couso's mother and siblings in the case, the Supreme Court is merely insisting that the law be upheld. "The National Court dismissed the case for lack of reliable evidence," he says. "But it was still in the investigatory phase. Under Spanish law, you can't evaluate the validity of evidence until you go to trial."

Others believe that the latest investigation may have been fueled by the discovery of new evidence. At the time of the attack, the U.S. Central Command in Iraq contended that there was gunfire coming from the direction of the hotel and that tank sergeant Gibson reported a suspicious spotter on the roof. "We fully investigated the incident and determined that U.S. servicemen acted appropriately," said Pentagon spokesman Lt. Commander Joe Carpenter in 2007. "[The journalists' death] is unfortunately a tragedy of war." (Asked by TIME whether any of the accused servicemen have faced disciplinary action in relation to the attack, a spokesman for the Department of Defense said he is still "familiarizing" himself with the case and doesn't know the answer.)

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