LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- An Iraqi man pleaded guilty Tuesday to 10 charges of conspiring to send weapons, cash and explosives to al-Qaida in Iraq and two counts of lying to federal immigration agents to get into the United States and stay in the country.
Mohanad Shareef Hammadi, 24, gave simple "yes" and "I plead guilty" answers to questions from U.S. District Judge Thomas B. Russell in federal court in Louisville. The surprise plea came a week before Hammadi was set to stand trial on the charges in Bowling Green, Ky., where he and a co-defendant were arrested in May 2011 after a federal sting operation.
Hammadi, who did not have a plea agreement with prosecutors, faces 25 years to life in federal prison plus millions of dollars in fines when he's sentenced Dec. 5. He had been scheduled for trial Aug. 28 in Bowling Green. The co-defendant, 30-year-old Waad Ramadan Alwan, previously pleaded guilty and is scheduled for sentencing Oct. 3 in Bowling Green.
The plea came as good news to soldiers who fought near the city of Bayji, Iraq, in the Sunni Triangle north of Baghdad in 2005, where Hammadi and Alwan told the FBI they worked as insurgents. Six Pennsylvania National Guard soldiers died in that area in August 2005 and Hammadi and Alwan told the FBI and an informant that they were active insurgents there.
Justin Hunt of Alexandria, Va., served with the 173rd Long Range Surveillance Detachment of the Rhode Island National Guard near Bayji. His unit responded to assist on Aug. 9, 2005, when a roadside bomb killed four of the soldiers from Pennsylvania. Hunt sees Hammadi's plea as justice.
"This guy was not smart," Hunt told The Associated Press on Tuesday. "He was just lucky. His luck has run out."
Brandon Miller of Chadds Ford, Pa., received a Purple Heart for burn injuries he sustained after his Humvee blew up after hitting a roadside bomb near Bayji. He described the plea as "outstanding."
"It spares everybody a lot of trouble," said Miller, a former Pennsylvania National Guard sergeant.
Hammadi's defense attorney, Jim Earhart of Louisville, said his client "grew up in a different world" and never intended to get caught up in shipping weapons and explosives to al-Qaida in Iraq. Earhart described Hammadi as willing to plead guilty rather than go through the rigors of a trial to achieve the same result.
"He's hesitant. He's 24 years-old," Earhart said. "He's looking at 25 years to life. Who wouldn't be?"
Earlier in the day at a pre-trial hearing, U.S. Justice Department attorney Larry Schneider said the government has "definitive proof" linking Hammadi to insurgent attacks after the American-led invasion of Iraq.
"He was either part of Al-Qaida in Iraq or a group affiliated with Al-Qaida in Iraq," Schneider said during a pre-trial conference.
After the plea hearing, U.S. Attorney David J. Hale noted that Hammadi pleaded guilty to lying about his involvement with insurgent and terrorist groups.
"It speaks for itself, what he admitted to," Hale said.
The U.S. State Department estimated that al-Qaida in Iraq had about 1,000 core members in 2005 and about 10,000 affiliated fighters at its peak in 2010.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Calhoun spelled out nine charges against Hammadi involving attempts to ship sniper rifles, cases of C4 explosives, rocket propelled grenades, hand grenades, machine guns and wads of cash to al-Qaida in Iraq from January 2011 until the sting operation closed in May 2011. Calhoun also laid out count 10, which involved an attempt to send Stinger missile systems and counts 11 and 12, which charged Hammadi with lying about prior associations with terrorist organizations on a form to enter the United States as a refugee and another form seeking permanent legal resident status.
After each charge, the green jumpsuit-clad and shackled Hammadi answered "yes" and "I do plead guilty."
A government informant identified only as "Ammar" first started working with Alwan in late 2010. Hammadi admitted to joining the conspiracy in January 2011. Hale said all of the weapons involved were inactive and couldn't have been used. Hale added that none made it overseas.
Hale credited the efforts of the Joint Terrorism Task Force, a group that includes the FBI and Bowling Green Police Department, with running the sting and making the case winnable.
"In short, the system that was put in place post-9/11 worked," Hale said. "There's no place to hide. They chose Bowling Green, Ky., ... that's no different than choosing a major American city."