updated 3/21/2007 7:12:18 PM ET 2007-03-21T23:12:18

A U.S. soldier pleaded guilty Wednesday to being an accessory to the rape and murder of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and the slaying of her family in what was one of the most shocking atrocities in the Iraq war.

Pfc. Bryan Howard, 20, also pleaded guilty to conspiracy to obstruct justice by lying to his superior officers about the March 12, 2006, attack in Mahmoudiya, 20 miles south of Baghdad.

Howard could get up to 15 years in prison at a sentencing hearing expected to begin later Wednesday.

The case was one of several in which U.S. troops were accused of abusing Iraqis. Incidents such as this attack and the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal have stirred anti-Iraq war sentiment in the Muslim world and elsewhere.

Five soldiers with the 101st Airborne Division were charged in the rape of Abeer Qassim al-Janabi and the killings of her, her parents and her younger sister. Two of the soldiers previously pleaded guilty and said Howard's role was minimal.

Howard told the judge Wednesday he was left behind at a checkpoint while four other soldiers went to rape the girl. Howard said he overheard the four planning the attack.

Howard said he only started to realize that someone had been killed after the soldiers returned about 10 minutes later. He said the four soldiers were in a "hectic state and hyper."

Howard said he saw blood on one of the soldier's uniforms, but he didn't remember which one.

"I was slowly starting to believe what they had done, that they had committed the crimes, the rape and the murder," Howard said.

‘If I could go back ...’
In a statement to the court, Howard apologized to the military, his family and to the girl and her family. "Finally I want to apologize to the Iraqi people and the victims," he said.

He said he regretted not taking action to stop the killings and not telling the truth afterward. "If I could go back, I would not have let it happen in the first place, and I definitely would have told someone," he said.

His lawyer, Capt. Megan Shaw, asked the judge to let Howard return to his unit immediately. "Howard was a good kid that deserves a second chance," she said during the sentencing hearing.

But Capt. Alexander Pickands, a military prosecutor, said that Howard was not a victim, a bystander or a loyal squad member.

"He knew right from wrong," Pickands said. "He knew that when his squad members returned bloodied, that something had gone horribly wrong. Knowing that, he chose to shield them."

Spc. James P. Barker and Sgt. Paul E. Cortez, who have pleaded guilty to rape and murder, have said they took turns raping the girl while Pfc. Steven D. Green shot and killed her mother, father and younger sister.

Green, who is accused of being the ringleader but was discharged from the military before being charged, will be prosecuted in a federal court in Kentucky. He pleaded not guilty to charges including murder and sexual assault.

Barker said Howard and another soldier charged, Pfc. Jesse V. Spielman, did not participate in the rape and killings, but he said they were at the house when the assault occurred and had come knowing what the others intended to do.

Barker was sentenced to 90 years in prison and Cortez received 100.

Shifting attention away from comrades
During Wednesday's hearing, Howard said Cortez and Green, after they had returned, bragged about what they had done.

Howard said he knew Green shot at least one person and that he learned how many people had been killed in all when the battalion commander began asking him about the attack.

Howard said he told investigators that he did not believe the soldiers were involved, but "I told them Green was probably crazy enough to do it."

Howard said he implicated Green to draw the investigators' attention away from Barker, Cortez and Spielman.

Lawyers for Spielman have said he was not involved in the planning of the murders and rape. His trial is scheduled for April 2.

Four other 101st soldiers have already been convicted in a separate case involving the killing of three Iraqi detainees during a May raid on an insurgent camp near Samarra, Iraq.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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