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From Murder to Congress? Unrepentant Tea Party-Backed GOP Candidate Ilario Pantano Killed 2 Unarmed Iraqis

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A former US Marine who killed two unarmed Iraqis is running for a congressional seat in North Carolina and has received backing from the Tea Party. Ilario Pantano has said he has no regrets about fatally shooting the two at point-blank range after detaining them near Fallujah in April 2004. Despite his admission, the military cleared Pantano of wrongdoing in 2005. He is now in a tight race with incumbent Democrat Rep. Mike McIntyre in North Carolina’s 7th Congressional District. For more on this story, we talk to Salon.com reporter Justin Elliott, who has been following this race closely. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: In North Carolina, a Tea Party-backed congressional candidate is facing scrutiny for having killed two unarmed Iraqis while serving in Iraq. The candidate, Ilario Pantano, has said he has no regrets about fatally shooting the two at point-blank range after detaining them near Fallujah in April 2004. Prosecutors later alleged that Pantano intended to make an example of the men by shooting them sixty times and hanging a sign over their corpses that read, “No better friend, no worse enemy.” Pantano did not deny hanging the sign or shooting the men repeatedly after stopping their vehicle at a checkpoint. He admitted to emptying one magazine of bullets into the Iraqis, then reloading and firing thirty more rounds.

AMY GOODMAN: Despite his admission, the military cleared Pantano of wrongdoing in 2005. He’s now in a tight race with incumbent Democrat Mike McIntyre in North Carolina’s 7th Congressional District. Pantano’s campaign has been endorsed by former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin.

For more on this race and Pantano’s history, we’re joined here in New York by Salon.com reporter Justin Elliott. He’s been following this story closely.

Welcome to Democracy Now! So, tell us about Ilario Pantano’s story.

JUSTIN ELLIOTT: Well, he’s actually a native New Yorker. He’s from not far from where we are right now in Manhattan. And he was a Marine in the ’90s. He then worked at Goldman Sachs in business. And then, after September 11th, a couple years after, he rejoined the Marines, and he was in Iraq in 2004, an officer.

The incident that you’re referring to was in April 2004, south of Baghdad. His unit was searching a house. They arrested two people they said were suspected insurgents. These two Iraqi men had been searched. They didn’t have any weapons. And he was — Mr. Pantano was having them search their own car when he opened fire, and shooting as many as fifty or sixty rounds at them. And that includes reloading his M-16 rifle. After, he placed a sign next to their bodies with this Marine slogan, “No better friend, no worse enemy.”

He was later charged, the next year, with premeditated murder, based on the allegations of another Marine there who said that he basically opened fire for no reason. Pantano maintained, and the military ultimately agreed with him, that these two men, even though they were unarmed, had made some sort of menacing movement towards him, and that justified what he did. During that trial, it became a cause célèbre on the right. On conservative talk radio, Michael Savage, for example, was talking up this case and saying, “Why are they prosecuting him?” So he became a name that was known. He then wrote a book about it that he titled No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy.

AMY GOODMAN: In your piece, you write that at a pre-trial military hearing, prosecution witnesses testified that the men, Hamaady Kareem and Tahah Hanjil, were unthreatening and their bodies were found in a kneeling position, having apparently been shot in the back.

JUSTIN ELLIOTT: Well, the military proceedings are not very transparent, so we still don’t know what the thinking was about the decision to not pursue the court-martial.

AMY GOODMAN: Actually, that was Ed Pilkington of The Guardian who wrote that.

JUSTIN ELLIOTT: Right. The military did say that some kind of autopsy they did backed up Pantano’s version of the story. But again, I mean, most of what happened, everyone agrees on. The question is whether these two men made some sort of menacing movement towards him.

Fast-forwarding to the congressional race this year in the 7th District of North Carolina, you would possibly think that this would be a liability for his campaign, but actually, the Democratic incumbent and Democratic Party have not made an issue out of it. It’s been almost no one is talking about it.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And that’s because that district has a lot of military or ex-military who live there? What’s the district like?

JUSTIN ELLIOTT: Well, yeah, there are a lot of ex-military people in the district, and it’s a conservative district. The incumbent, Congressman Mike McIntyre, is a conservative Democrat. So, yeah, I talked to local political analysts, and they said, “Look, it’s far too delicate an issue for the Democrats to touch. A lot of people see Pantano as a hero.” To give you an example of how much this is not a liability, he was endorsed, as you mentioned, by Rudy Giuliani and also Sarah Palin, both of them in their endorsements touting his military record. He recently actually held a fundraiser at a gun range and said, you know, “You pay $25 and see if you can outshoot Ilario Pantano.” So it’s almost like he’s drawing attention to this. And the Democrats, again, have not — have been basically silent on it, so it’s not really an issue.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And I was struck by some — in some of the documents in the closing arguments of Pantano’s lawyer on this case, when he said, “What you have to remember is you can’t import civilian standards into a combat situation. This isn’t Chicago. This is Iraq, Indian country, where bad guys do things like take you out and cut your head off, where they do things like shoot you in the head, behead you, cut off your limbs, set you on fire, and hang you from bridges, and that happened just a few days before this incident.”

JUSTIN ELLIOTT: Right. I mean, I think that gets at a dynamic going over the past eight years, which is that in a lot of these cases where there’s potentially questionable killings in Iraq or Afghanistan, it’s actually been hard to get convictions of the American soldiers. I was recently talking to the attorney for one of the soldiers in a different case, the so-called “kill team” in Afghanistan’s hearings going on out in Washington state right now, a different one of the defense attorneys. And he said, “You know, look. We’re confident, if this goes to a court-martial, we think that we can convince a military jury to acquit. You know, they will give the defendants huge benefit of the doubt.” It’s not — I don’t think it’s — I think that’s actually correct, what his attorney said. It’s really a different setting than a civilian trial.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, what’s very interesting is that he beat, in the GOP primary, a fellow Iraq war vet, Will Breazeale, who told the Daily Beast, as quoted by you, after his primary loss, that he considers Pantano “dangerous,” saying, “I’ve taken prisoners in Iraq and there’s no excuse for what he did.” Asked if he’s surprised that his critics have largely ignored the Iraq incident, what did Pantano tell you?

JUSTIN ELLIOTT: He said that, “Look, they can bring it up if they want, and I will stand by my record.”

AMY GOODMAN: But his major issue is the Islamic center that has been proposed, not in North Carolina, but downtown Manhattan.

JUSTIN ELLIOTT: Right, Park51, the proposed Islamic community center. He actually took a break from his campaign on this past September 11th anniversary, came up to New York, and was a speaker at a rally with a bunch of other controversial, some of whom are anti-Muslim, speakers against that project. And he’s, you know, very —

AMY GOODMAN: What does he call it, the area? “Martyr Marker”?

JUSTIN ELLIOTT: “Martyr Marker.” I think, you know, he basically — like with many of these other critics, he says it’s a monument to Islamic conquest, basically, and he’s very clear and articulate about that.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Justin Elliott, we want to thank you very much for being with us, reporter for Salon.com.

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