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Military prosecutor brands accused US troops 'war criminals'
Yahoo News/AFP
August 4, 2006

TIKRIT, Iraq (AFP) - A military prosecutor branded four US soldiers who have been accused of murdering Iraqi prisoners "war criminals" and demanded they face a court martial.

The prosecutor, Captain Joseph Mackey, was speaking on the last day of a legal hearing to determine whether there is enough evidence to prosecute the troops following the May 9 slaying of three detainees.

"US soldiers must follow the laws of war. That's what makes us better than the terrorists, what sets us apart from the thugs and the hitmen. These soldiers did just the opposite," Mackey said, in his closing argument.

The defendants, he charged, had cut the prisoners free of their plastic handcuffs, "murdered them in cold blood," and later falsely claimed the victims had escaped their bonds and assaulted their captors.

"For this, they're not war heroes, they're war criminals, and justice states that they face trial," he said. "Their story simply doesn't make sense, and that's what we need to look at. It's fabricated."

However, civilian defence lawyers acting for Private Corey Clagett, Staff Sergeant Raymond Girouard, Specialist William Hunsaker and Specialist Juston Graber, insisted that the prosecution had failed to prove its case.

Clagett's counsel Paul Bergrin told the tribunal that military prosecutors had failed to produce any eyewitness testimony or forensic evidence to prove that the Iraqis had not been lawfully killed.

Prosecution witnesses had given inconsistent statements, he and other defence counsel alleged, and had all bar one said that they did not believe that the defendants were men capable of premeditated murder.

"They went in to a hot LZ (landing zone) with the pre-thoughts they're going to fight terrorists, al-Qaeda insurgents. Every single one of them followed their mission and their rules of engagement," Bergrin said.

The hearing ended and the panel of officers retired to decide whether the defendants -- air assault troops from the "Rakkasans", the 3rd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division -- ought to face trial.

Their conclusion will be passed to the commander of the 101st, who will announce his decision in the coming days.

If the case does come to trial, it will shine a critical spotlight on US forces' controversial and opaque rules of engagement in Iraq.

This week's hearing heard that the Rakkasans' commander, Colonel Michael Steele, had ordered the defendants' unit to "kill all military age males" in their assault on a suspected insurgent base on an island in the Tigris river.

Steele is a controversial figure following his leading role in a bungled 1993 raid in the Somali capital Mogadishu -- made famous by the book and film "Black Hawk Down" -- in which 18 US soldiers and hundreds of Somalis died.

Several of the witnesses recalled during the hearing recalled versions of the alleged order -- one said it was "kill these sons of bitches" -- although some testified that this did not apply to suspects who were clearly surrendering.

Steele, three more senior soldiers and all four defendants refused to testify at the hearing to avoid incriminating themselves.

During Friday's hearing, Iraqi army soldiers who had accompanied the US troops on the mission testified that many of them had been distressed and decided to quit the army after seeing an unarmed old man shot dead.

The man was shot as the unit approached a house in the target area when he was seen at a window. The three detainees who were subsequently killed were found inside the building.

Iraqi Sergeant Hamed Muhammed said the old man was around 75 and unarmed.

"You know the situation," he told the hearing. "This incident makes the people hate us. All the citizens hate us because we support the United States, and cases like this incident make them hate us even more."

International human rights watchdog groups have criticized US tactics in Iraq, which are alleged to have caused needless civilian casualties, but the military refuses to publicly discuss its rules of engagement.

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