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Iraq War vets stand up for one of their own

Bill Ivey and Wes Martin think enough of Steve Jabar to pony up $5,000 apiece for his legal defense.

They also stand ready to tell a jury why.

When they do, the two combat military officers will talk about the Steve Jabar who risked his life to save others in Iraq.

They also will question – and criticize – their own government for prosecuting him.

And they’re not alone.

A handful of retired officers, all of them Iraqi War veterans, are actively supporting Jabar, a Town of Tonawanda resident, as he fights a four-year-old indictment charging him with embezzling United Nations funds.

“In combat, you learn the character of a person,” said Martin, a retired Army colonel. “Steve would never intentionally defraud anyone. He simply made an error in judgment.”

Ivey agrees.

“I’ve trusted him with my life, and I would do it again,” the retired Army colonel said. “When you spend 13 months with a guy in a war zone, you get to know him pretty well.”

Ivey and Martin are part of a small group of retired officers, most of them former colonels and generals, who worked side by side with Jabar and came to know and respect him.

They don’t believe the allegations against their friend and are convinced his only real crime is poor bookkeeping.

“He’s like a brother to me,” said Edward Burris, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel. “There’s no way on God’s green Earth he did what he’s accused of doing.”

Federal prosecutors tell a far different story.

A grand jury indicted Jabar and co-defendant Deborah Bowers, accusing them of diverting $65,000 from a $350,000 United Nations grant intended for an Iraqi radio station promoting women’s rights.

The 14-count indictment details a series of transactions from 2004 through 2006 in which Bowers and Jabar are alleged to have used U.N. funds for their own benefit.

“The indictment alleges these transactions were used to pay for personal expenses, including back taxes,” Assistant U.S. Attorney John E. Rogowski said.

The allegations of fraud and money laundering are rooted in the funds that allegedly went from Opportunities for Kids International, the group that received the U.N. grant, into the private bank accounts of Bowers and Jabar.

Bowers was executive director of OKI, and Jabar was its treasurer.

“Jabar and Bowers are accused of stealing from the United Nations for their personal gain, depriving the intended beneficiaries of assistance and, of course, diverting resources away from the United Nations,” said Christine Shanley, special agent for the Criminal Investigations Division of the Internal Revenue Service.

Shanley said the IRS, regardless of the amount of money involved, takes allegations of money laundering seriously because it undermines the financial services industry and ultimately the economy.

“In addition,” she said, “lying to law enforcement officers conducting an official criminal investigation undermines the pursuit of justice.”

Even without the colonels and generals in his corner, Jabar’s prosecution would be a headline grabber.

From the day in 2009 when he returned from Iraq to turn himself in, Jabar has maintained his innocence, and friends and allies have been quick to suggest he’s a patriot, not a crook.

In Iraq, the man known as Kamal Jabar is a former Iraqi resistance fighter whose father was tortured and killed by Saddam Hussein’s army.

Even now, decades after leaving Iraq, he has a network of contacts and a familiarity with the language and culture that make him a valuable adviser to U.S. military officials.

It’s a role he served repeatedly during the war, and he’s not shy about mentioning the powerful people he met in his travels there.

“Deep inside, it’s killing me,” Jabar said of the allegations against him. “I never thought the U.S. government would treat me this way.”

Coming to Buffalo

During the early 1990s, Jabar came to Buffalo as a refugee, became an American citizen and for a time operated Iraqi House, a center for transplanted Iraqis living in Buffalo.

While helping a local Kurdish family, he met Bowers, the wife of a Clarence minister and an activist with a passion for helping refugees in Buffalo and poor children in Iraq.

Mark J. Mahoney, Bowers’ attorney, declined to comment for this article, but his client’s relationship with Jabar is well known.

It was Jabar who persuaded Bowers to join him in forming OKI and pushing the idea of an Iraqi radio station for women.

The station, known as “Voice of Women Radio,” or “Radio Al Mahaba,” is on the air today, and Jabar continues to play a major role in its operation even while under indictment.

He also continues, with the court’s permission, to travel back and forth to Iraq.

When the station first went on the air, the U.N., at Bowers’ and Jabar’s urging, kicked in $350,000 to help with its operation.

From there, the stories part ways.

Misuse of U.N. grant

Investigators claim Jabar and Bowers used tens of thousands of dollars from the U.N. grant to pay off credit cards, loans and taxes on two properties owned by Jabar.

Supporters counter by suggesting Bowers and Jabar were reimbursing themselves for what they had already personally invested in the radio station.

“Show me the crime," said Steven M. Cohen, Jabar’s defense lawyer. “There’s a monumental injustice in this case."

Jabar’s allies are confident their friend will be able to ultimately show that while there were accounting issues, every dollar from the U.N. grant went into the radio station.

They also think Jabar eventually will prove that his prosecution was motivated by overzealous federal agents and a U.N. angry with Jabar’s outspoken criticism of corruption at the international organization.

“He told them, if you’re saying we’re poor accountants, OK,” Cohen said of Jabar and the U.N. “In the end, we believe every penny went into the radio station.”

And so do Jabar’s retired military friends.

“I think he’s guilty of poor judgment,” Ivey said. “I don’t think there was ever any criminal intent to defraud the United Nations,"

Ivey said Jabar has always been honest and upfront with him, and says it was that kind of integrity that made him an invaluable asset to the U.S. military.

Military keeps him on

When the government began investigating Jabar, he lost his security clearance and, yet, the military command in Iraq thought enough of him to keep him on staff, Ivey said.

Burris said he was initially skeptical of Jabar but soon learned of his value.

“He saved a lot of lives, Iraqis and Americans,” he said of Jabar and the information he helped provide. “That’s not up for debate. That’s not conjecture.”

And now, at least in the eyes of Burris, Ivey and Martin, that same man is under indictment by the country he tried to help.

For them, that’s the real injustice.

“He lost his home. He lost his job. He lost his savings, and they’re still pounding away at the man,” Martin said.

Jabar holds out hope that his name will be cleared and his reputation restored.

“I’m a good guy,” he said in an interview with The Buffalo News last month. “I was doing the right thing in Iraq. I had access to millions of dollars. Why would I do something like this?”