updated 3/15/2007 10:29:17 PM ET 2007-03-16T02:29:17

An Army staff sergeant said Thursday he did not order members of his squad to kill three Iraqi detainees as his soldiers have testified.

Staff Sgt. Ray Girouard said two soldiers in his squad released and shot the detainees during a May 9 raid near Samarra, Iraq. Girouard said in a snap decision he chose to help the two men cover up the crime by staging an attack.

"I was looking out for the well-being of my soldiers," Girouard said.

Girouard, 24, is accused of telling his soldiers to release the detainees they captured and then shoot them as they fled. He is the last and most senior soldier from the 101st Airborne Division to face trial in the killings during a raid on a suspected insurgent camp.

If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of life without parole.

Girouard said he slashed Spc. William Hunsaker with his knife and punched Pfc. Corey Clagett in the face to make it appear an attack had taken place.

Clagett and Hunsaker initially told investigators they shot in self-defense because the detainees attacked them and tried to escape.

Both have pleaded guilty and testified Tuesday that Girouard ordered the killings and helped them cover it up by faking an attack. Clagett and Hunsaker were sentenced to 18 years in military prison.

Girouard faced cross-examination later Thursday.

Girouard testified that he was shocked when he came upon the scene. He said he tried to help the men with their cover story and told his superiors that Hunsaker and Clagett had been attacked.

Girouard said the order to kill all military-age Iraqi men came through the chain of command from 3rd Brigade commander Col. Michael Steele, although he didn't hear it directly from Steele. Steele has denied that claim but invoked his right not to testify.

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