By KATARINA KRATOVAC, Associated Press Writer
BAGHDAD – A U.S. soldier cried Thursday as he told a court-martial that his staff sergeant ordered him to shoot an unarmed Iraqi. He said the sergeant then laughed and told the trooper to finish the job as the dying man convulsed on the ground.
The military reported, meanwhile, that it had opened an investigation into the deaths of five women and four children this week in a village where American forces had carried out ground and air assaults.
Both incidents took place in a region south of the capital known as the triangle of death, a Sunni-dominated area that has seen some of the war’s heaviest fighting and most gruesome deaths.
Prosecutors claim the first case involved the killing of an Iraqi man with a 9mm pistol, placing an AK-47 rifle by his body to make it seem as though he was armed, and failing to ensure humane treatment of a detainee — the victim.
In the court-martial, Sgt. Evan Vela, 23, spoke barely above a whisper as he recounted shooting the man on May 11 near Iskandariyah, a mostly Sunni city 30 miles south of Baghdad.
Vela said Staff Sgt. Michael Hensley of Candler, N.C., told him to shoot the man, who had stumbled upon their snipers’ hideout, although he was not armed and had his hands in the air when he approached the soldiers.
“He (Hensley) asked me if I was ready. I had the pistol out. I heard the word shoot. I don’t remember pulling the trigger. It took me a second to realize that the shot came from the pistol in my hand,” he said, crying.
Vela said that as the Iraqi man was convulsing on the ground, “Hensley kind of laughed about it and hit the guy on the throat and said shoot again.”
“After he (the Iraqi man) was shot, Hensley pulled an AK-47 out of his rucksack and said, ‘this is what we are going to say happened,’” Vela said, before he was dismissed from the witness stand to compose himself.
Vela told the story during the second day of the court-martial of Spc. Jorge G. Sandoval, of Laredo, Texas. Sandoval is on trial for allegedly killing Iraqis and trying to cover up the deaths by planting weapons at the scene.
Vela said Sandoval was not present during the May 11 killing but was nearby providing security. Sandoval has pleaded not guilty to five charges, including the April 27 murder of a second unidentified Iraqi man and placing a detonation wire on his body. He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted.
Both Vela of Rigby, Idaho, and Hensley are also charged in the case but will be court-martialed separately. It was unclear why Vela was called to testify in Sandoval’s court-martial.
The three soldiers are part of the Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, based at Fort Richardson, Alaska.
Vela was flown from Kuwait to testify under a deal that bars his account of events from being used against him when he goes to trial.
Military prosecutors said the killings in which the three men are charged occurred between April and June near Iskandariyah. The investigation began after military authorities received reports of alleged wrongdoing from fellow soldiers, the Army has said.
Sandoval was arrested in June while on a two-week leave visiting his family.
Vela’s lawyer Gary Myers claimed this week that Army snipers hunting insurgents in Iraq were under orders to “bait” their targets with suspicious materials, such as detonation cords, then kill those who picked up the items. He said his client was acting on “orders.”
A second Vela lawyer, James Culp, said: “Our client is no murderer. The world will consider him to be a victim in this case.” He said Vela had slept only three hours the night before the incident and that the soldiers had been on a sniping mission for four days.
Asked about the existence of the “baiting program,” Capt. Craig Drummond, Sandoval’s military defense attorney, said it was unclear “what programs were going on out there and when,” especially “if there were things that were done that made the rules of engagement not clear.”
Sgt. 1st Class Tarrol Petersen, who instructs snipers at Ft. Benning, Ga., testified as an expert witness that snipers need sufficient rest.
“You can only last for so long when you are on a mission. As snipers we look through a scope, we see a face. It’s a lot different than shooting someone 100 meters away with an ordinary rifle. When snipers break, they break bad,” Petersen said.
In the incident south of Baghdad in which the five women and four children died, the military said their bodies were found after U.S. forces targeted al-Qaida in Iraq-linked fighters in ground and air operations late Tuesday in the predominantly Sunni village of Babahani.
Two area police officers told The Associated Press that U.S. fighter jets bombed two houses before dawn Wednesday. The women and children were killed in the first house struck, and the second house was damaged, they said.
Amer Zamil, who works at nearby Mussayib hospital 40 miles south of Baghdad, said two of the children were decapitated, evidently in the bombing.
The police officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information, said ground forces raided a local mosque and that the preacher, Imam Hassan Abboud al-Janabi, was killed. The military had no immediate response to the claims.
The military said buildings in the area have been used as al-Qaida hideouts. It said a search of a nearby house uncovered material for making roadside bombs, including wire, batteries and timers.
The police said the targeted village was a stronghold of insurgents who have prevented Iraqi security forces from entering.
Also Thursday, Iraq’s Sunni vice president held a rare meeting with the country’s top Shiite cleric to seek support for a 25-point blueprint for political reform, the latest in a series of efforts by both Islamic sects to promote unity.
Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi said Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani praised his initiative during their two-hour meeting in Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad. The Shiite spiritual leader previously has met with Sunni clerics, but this was his first meeting with a senior government official from the disaffected minority Islamic sect, aides said.
Meanwhile, American forces arrested three “extremists” in high-level jobs and plotting kidnapping operations at Baghdad International Airport, the military said in a statement. It said those arrested were plotting to kidnap Iraqi forces and civilians working with U.S. troops.
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