HAPPY INDEPENDENCE DAY: 3 U.S. Soldiers Charged With Murder of 3 Iraqis

Kareem Raheem | photographer

Officials of American-led forces said soldiers killed 26 militants in a rai in Sadr City Saturday, but some residents said civilians were killed.


BAGHDAD, June 30 — Two American soldiers have been charged with premeditated murder and planting weapons on dead Iraqis, the United States military said Saturday.

The soldiers, Staff Sgt. Michael A. Hensley and Specialist Jorge G. Sandoval Jr., were detained after fellow soldiers reported they had been involved in the deaths of three Iraqis near Iskandariya, a stronghold of the Sunni Arab insurgency south of Baghdad, in separate events between April and June this year.

Also on Saturday, the United States military mounted an early morning raid into the Shiite district of Sadr City in Baghdad. Officials with the American-led forces said soldiers had killed 26 militants, but some residents and Mahdi Army militia commanders accused them of killing civilians.

In the murder case, American military officials said Sergeant Hensley, 27, from Candler, N.C., faces three charges of premeditated murder, obstruction of justice and wrongfully placing weapons with the remains of deceased Iraqis. Specialist Sandoval, 20, faces one charge of premeditated murder and one of wrongfully placing a weapon on one of the three Iraqis killed.

Both were serving with the First Battalion, 501st Infantry, of the 25th Infantry Division, which has its headquarters at Fort Richardson, Alaska. Specialist Sandoval was picked up while at home on a two-week leave in Laredo, Tex., the military said. Charges were filed Thursday, and both men are in confinement in Kuwait.

The military said in a statement that an investigation was under way.

The area, part of the so-called Sunni Triangle, is no stranger to controversy.

Two American soldiers have admitted to raping a 14-year-old and killing her and her family in Mahmudiya, a town near Iskandariya, in March 2006, and others also face trial in the killings. Tension has been high since May 12, when an insurgent ambush on a patrol near Mahmudiya killed four American soldiers and one Iraqi, and led to the abduction of three Americans. One soldier’s body was later found but the other two soldiers are still missing.

In Baghdad, Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, an American military spokesman, said the raid in Sadr City on Saturday was against a militant cell that was smuggling weapons, explosively formed penetrators, a particularly lethal type of bomb, and money from Iran to aid Iraqi militias.

He said soldiers killed about 26 fighters and detained 17 suspects, but came under attack from small arms, rocket-propelled grenades and roadside bombs as they withdrew from the area. The Americans returned fire against militants shooting from behind buildings and cars.

“Everyone who got shot was shooting at U.S. troops at the time,” Colonel Garver said. “It was an intense firefight.”

But Iraqi officials said that the death toll was much lower, around eight, and some said that civilians were killed, including a man, his wife and their daughter, who had left their home to check on the disturbance.

Sadr City residents said the American operation was directed at more than one part of the district. Abu Jamal, 50, said he heard troops outside his house in the Sabee Qusoor area early in the morning.

“We were sitting on the roof, all of a sudden the helicopters started throwing flares,” he said. “We were afraid, so we left and went downstairs. The whole family went into one room because we started hearing the sound of firing from the helicopters. We couldn’t hear any firing from machine guns, only the aircraft firing. It was a horrible night.”

In Najaf, a spokesman for the anti-American cleric Moktada al-Sadr, the nominal leader of the Mahdi Army, condemned the raid Saturday and insisted that the militia was not involved in the fight.

“We reject these repeated assaults against civilians. The allegation that Mahdi Army members were the only ones targeted is baseless and wrong,” said the spokesman, Sheik Salah al-Obaidi. “The bombing hurt only innocent civilians.”

The battle prompted an immediate statement from the office of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, saying that he would demand clarification from the military.

On the political front, Mr. Maliki appealed for Iraq’s largest Sunni bloc, the Iraqi Consensus Front, to end its boycott of his Shiite-dominated government. The boycott began last week as a protest of an arrest warrant issued against one of its members, Culture Minister Asad al-Hashimi, in a murder investigation.

Mr. Maliki said boycotts would only “complicate” matters, and urged them to embrace dialogue as “the only way to solve all the problems now and in the future.”

In Diyala Province, a suicide bomber killed three police recruits and wounded 34 lined up outside a police station in Muqdadiya.

Meanwhile, the American military said it killed Abu Abdel Rahman al-Masri, a senior figure in Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, in a raid east of Falluja on Friday. Colonel Garver said that Mr. Masri, an Egyptian, had worked closely with Abu Ayyub al-Masri, the military leader of the group, and that his body had been identified by known associates.

American commanders also said that on Friday night a tip from an Iraqi led them to a grave containing dozens of bodies near Ferris, 20 miles south of Falluja. The military said in a statement: “Coalition forces uncovered 35 to 40 bodies at the site. The remains were bound and had gunshot wounds. This incident is currently under investigation.” It is unclear when or how the victims were killed.

Separately, an American command sergeant major, the most senior enlisted member serving in a major command, was sentenced to four months in detention after being convicted of possessing alcohol and pornography, engaging in an inappropriate relationship with a female soldier in his unit, and maltreating a soldier.

The command sergeant major, Edward Ramsdell, of the 411th Engineer Brigade, was working in Diyala Province at the time, and he was given a court-martial in October. Prosecutors said he had possessed a “large quantity” of alcohol and pornography in his quarters, tried to conceal the evidence when discovered and then tried to escape from investigating officers.

Wisam A. Habeeb contributed reporting from Baghdad, and Iraqi employees of The New York Times from Baghdad, Najaf and Diyala.

3rd American Soldier Charged in Murder of an Iraqi Civilian


BAGHDAD, July 2 — A third American soldier has been charged with murdering an Iraqi civilian and planting a weapon in a shooting that the soldiers tried to cover up, the United States military said Monday.

The soldier, Sgt. Evan Vela, of Phoenix, Idaho, served in the headquarters unit of the First Battalion, 501st Infantry, of the 25th Infantry Division, based at Fort Richardson, Alaska. That is the same unit as Staff Sgt. Michael A. Hensley and Specialist Jorge G. Sandoval Jr., who were charged last week with killing three Iraqis and placing weapons near their bodies to make it seem as though they were combatants.

Sergeant Vela is charged with one count of premeditated murder, and also of placing a weapon with the body, obstruction of justice and making a false statement, according to a statement by the military.

The killings happened near Iskandariya, south of Baghdad, between April and June, the military said in a statement. All three soldiers have been detained and are awaiting trial.

The military said two soldiers and one marine were killed in western Anbar Province on Sunday, in addition to two soldiers whose deaths were reported earlier. Those follow 101 American military deaths in June, according to figures from the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, making the 331 fatalities from April through June the deadliest quarter yet for United States forces.

In Diyala Province, the scene of heavy recent fighting between Sunni militants and American forces, an Iraqi police official in Muqdadiya said the civilian death toll from terrorist attacks in the Sherween area on Sunday night had reached 16, with 30 wounded. However, Maj. Gen. Abdul Karim al-Rubaie, the Iraqi commander of operations in Diyala, said coalition and Iraqi forces had made significant advances during the recent large-scale operation to clear Al Qaeda from Baquba.

“The terrorists even targeted schools, as they wanted to halt the progress of science in these areas,” he said Monday. “Life has gradually started to go back to normality in these areas, and residents were happy with the military operations.”

In Baghdad, Brig. Gen. Qassim Atta, an Iraqi military spokesman, said the security crackdown there had led to a reduction in attacks on civilians but an increase in attacks on American-led forces. However, hours later a car bomb in Binouk, a district in northern Baghdad, killed four people and wounded 25, an Interior Ministry official said last night.

Farther south, American F-16s bombed buildings in Diwaniya after insurgents launched 75 rockets and mortar shells at a coalition base. Iraqi officials said the jets killed 10 civilians, including women and children, wounded 30 others and destroyed several houses.

A statement from the United States military said the jets “targeted and bombed the insurgent launch sites.” Accusing insurgents of using civilians as human shields, it said coalition forces were “reviewing the incident to ensure that appropriate and proportionate force was used.”

The strike led to a protest march by residents, some of whom opened fire on a government building, leading to an exchange in which a 17-year-old demonstrator and two security guards were killed.

Iraqi employees of the New York Times contributed reporting from Diyala Province and Diwaniya

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