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Iraq murder trial opens for Army sniper

The former commander of a U.S. Army sniper team testified Friday that he ordered one of his soldiers to kill an Iraqi who had stumbled on their hiding place, saying that was the only way to ensure the safety of his men in hostile territory.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The former commander of a U.S. Army sniper team testified Friday that he ordered one of his soldiers to kill an Iraqi who had stumbled on their hiding place, saying that was the only way to ensure the safety of his men in hostile territory.

The testimony came as the U.S. military reported that five more soldiers were killed in two separate incidents in Iraq.

Sgt. Michael A. Hensley, who was a staff sergeant at the time of the killing last spring but was later demoted, gave his testimony on the opening day of a court-martial hearing a murder charge against Sgt. Evan Vela.

Another member of the sniper unit testified the soldiers had been pushed to the brink of physical and mental exhaustion before the May 11 killing of Genei Nasir al-Janabi.

Hensley said that he and the other members of the sniper team had all fallen asleep, then awoke to find an Iraqi man squatting about three feet from them.

Hensley said he ordered the Iraqi to lie on the ground and was searching the man when he saw "military-aged men" who he thought were carrying weapons about 100 yards away.

'Crack it'
He said the Iraqi on the ground began yelling and he decided that killing the man was the only way to keep the sniper hideout from being discovered by what he believed was a group of approaching insurgents.

"I told Sgt. Vela to pull out his 9-mm (pistol) and 'crack it.' I told Vela to shoot," said Hensley, who was acquitted in November of murder charges in this shooting and two earlier killings but was convicted of lesser charges. He received immunity for testifying Friday.

When asked why he didn't kill al-Janabi himself, Hensley said: "Sgt. Vela happened to be the guy with the pistol. The Iraqi's head was at his (Vela's) feet. I would have gladly shot him myself."

Military prosecutors say the killing of al-Janabi _ along with two other slayings April 14 and April 27 _ occurred near Iskandariyah, a mostly Sunni Arab city 30 miles south of Baghdad.

Vela, from St. Anthony, Idaho, also is charged with planting an AK-47 on the dead man's body in an attempt to cover up what happened.

Mustafa Ghani al-Janabi, al-Janabi's 17-year-old son, testified that he had been detained by the soldiers along with his father. He said that after about an hour, the soldiers let him go, but kept his father.

Five soldiers killed
Also, the U.S. military said two explosions killed five soldiers Friday.

Four of the troops died when their vehicle struck an improvised explosive device while the they were on a combat patrol northwest of Baghdad.

Another soldier and killed and three others wounded in an explosion near their vehicle as they carried out operations in Tamim province, the military said in a statement.

The wounded soldiers were transported to a coalition medical facility for treatment.

No other information on the attacks was immediately released, and names of the casualties were being withheld pending family notification.

During a break outside the court-martial at Camp Victory, near Baghdad airport, the boy said Hensley and Vela "destroyed my family's future because of what they did."

He said he thought the court proceedings were fair, but added that if no one was found guilty in his father's death, "then I wouldn't say it is a just system _ I would say it is a game."

Earlier, Vela's lawyer said during his opening statement that his client was too exhausted to know what he was doing or to make any sort of moral judgment about the order Hensley gave him.

"He was suffering from sleep deprivation and had no ability to think that morning," attorney James Culp told the court.

'Beyond their breaking point'
Another defense lawyer, Daniel Conway, told reporters during the lunch break that Vela had slept just 2 1/2 hours during a 74-hour period last spring. "The Army took the best and brightest and pushed them beyond their breaking point," he said.

On June 22, Vela gave a statement to military investigators saying he killed one of the Iraqis. But Culp said Friday that the statement was given under duress, saying Vela was not permitted to use the latrine or to eat during a seven-hour interrogation.

Two other soldiers _ Hensley, of Candler, N.C., and Spc. Jorge G. Sandoval Jr., of Laredo, Texas _ have faced similar charges in al-Janabi's killing as well as the other two slayings. They were acquitted of murder but convicted of planting evidence on the dead Iraqis.

Sandoval was sentenced to five months in prison, his rank was reduced to private and his pay was withheld. Hensley was sentenced to 135 days confinement, reduced in rank to sergeant and received a letter of reprimand.

The soldiers were assigned to the 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, based at Fort Richardson, Alaska.

Vela testified at Hensley's court-martial in late September, under a deal that bars his account of events from being used against him at his own court-martial.

Vela said Hensley told him to shoot an Iraqi who had stumbled on their snipers' hideout although the man was not armed and had his hands in the air as he approached the soldiers.