Two American soldiers have been charged with premeditated murder for allegedly killing three Iraqis and then planting weapons on their bodies to portray them as combatants, the U.S. military said Saturday.
The three Iraqis were killed in separate incidents between April and June near Iskandariyah, 30 miles south of Baghdad, the military said in a statement.
Fellow soldiers reported the alleged crimes to military authorities who launched an investigation, the military said, without giving further details on the killings or the victims.
One of the accused soldiers, Staff Sgt. Michael A. Hensley, from Candler, N.C., was put in military confinement in Kuwait on Thursday, facing three counts each of premeditated murder, obstructing justice and "wrongfully placing weapons with the remains of deceased Iraqis," the statement said.
Hensley's aunt, Patricia Stanberry of Candler, said he was an "all-American boy" who loved serving in the Army and would never jeopardize his career. He was on his third tour of Iraq.
"He's not a killer," Stanberry told the Citizen-Times of Asheville, N.C. "Michael would never do anything like that."
The other soldier, Spc. Jorge G. Sandoval, was arrested Tuesday at his home in Laredo, Texas, and transferred to confinement in Kuwait. The two are assigned to the 1st Battalion, 501 Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, based at Fort Richardson, Alaska.
Sandoval's mother, Alicia Sandoval, said her 22-year-old son was on a two-week leave visiting his family when authorities came and asked to speak to him. They said he would be back shortly, but she heard nothing since and had no idea where he was taken until an Associated Press reporter called.
"I haven't had any news," she said in Spanish on Saturday from her home in Laredo. "It was all very sudden."
Iraqis often accuse American soldiers of unnecessary killings or abuse, and the war has seen U.S. service members face prosecution in several high-profile incidents, including abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison, the killings of 24 civilians by Marines in Haditha and the rape and killing of a 14-year-old girl and the slaying of her family south of Baghdad.
After the rape case came to light, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said his government would also investigate and seek to prosecute those responsible, but no Iraqi investigation was ever pursued. The U.S. military has said it alone has the right to prosecute its soldiers accused in abuses in Iraq.
The military also announced Saturday that a command sergeant major, Edward Ramsdell, was convicted in a court martial, demoted and sentenced to four months in prison for engaging in an inappropriate relationship with a female soldier in his unit, maltreating a soldier and possessing a "large quantity" of alcohol and pornography.
Ramsdell, with the 411 Engineer Brigade based in the town of Balad, north of Baghdad, was also convicted of escape from custody, impeding an investigation by secreting evidence, and wrongfully removing evidence. Ramsdell was demoted to the rank of specialist.
In Other Developments: Two Iraqi policemen were killed Sunday when a roadside bomb exploded near their patrol in eastern Baghdad, police said. After the blast, gunmen sped by in a car and showered the policemen with machine gun fire, a police officer said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to media. Three policemen and three civilians in the area were wounded, the officer said. Also Sunday, the bullet-riddled body of a senior police commander was discovered in Basra, Iraq's second-largest city about 340 miles southeast of Baghdad, police said. Col. Nasser Hamoud, who was in charge of the city's prisons, had been kidnapped along with three of his guards the day before, another officer said on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisals. The guards were released a few hours later, he said. Hamoud's hands and legs were bound, and his body showed signs of torture, the officer said. He was a member of the Shiite Fadhila party, an influential Shiite group that controls Basra's provincial government. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Sunday that provincial elections will be held before the end of the year — a key demand from the United States, which hopes to give Sunnis another chance to take part. The last provincial elections were held on Jan. 30, 2005, and were largely boycotted by the Sunni minority, resulting in a Shiite sweep even in areas of the country with substantial Sunni populations. Yesterday, al-Maliki condemned a U.S. raid Saturday in Baghdad's Shiite Sadr City slum — a politically sensitive district for him —in which American troops searching for Iranian-linked militants sparked a firefight the U.S. said left 26 Iraqis dead. The U.S. military said all those killed in the fighting were gunmen, some of them firing from behind civilian cars. But an Iraqi official put the death toll lower, at eight, and said they were civilians. Residents also said eight civilians were killed in their homes, angrily accusing American troops of firing wildly during the pre-dawn assault.
Sadr City is the Iraqi capital's largest Shiite neighborhood — home to some 2.5 million people — making U.S. raids there potentially embarrassing for al-Maliki's Shiite-led government. The district is also the stronghold of the Mahdi Army, a militia loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who was once al-Maliki's ally. One U.S. soldier was killed and three wounded when an explosively-formed penetrator (EFP) hit their combat patrol in southern Baghdad, the military said Saturday. The soldiers' unit had just detained nine men suspected of making roadside bombs, when they were hit by an EFP on Friday, the U.S. military said in a statement. The victims' names were withheld pending family notification. A suicide bomber exploded himself in a crowd of police recruits Saturday in a market area northeast of Baghdad, killing at least 16 people, police said. The bomber detonated his explosives belt in a market area outside a police station in Muqdadiyah, 60 miles north of the Iraqi capital, a police officer said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information. All of the victims were new police recruits, the officer said. The military says U.S. troops uncovered a mass grave with as many as 40 bodies at a site south of Fallujah. It says a tip from a local resident led forces to the location. Between 35 and 40 bodies were found with gunshot wounds and limbs bound. Reports of 20 beheaded bodies found south of Baghdad earlier this week were untrue and may have been fabricated by insurgents aiming to incite violence and revenge killings, the U.S. military said Saturday. On Thursday, many Iraqi and international media outlets aired news of the bodies, quoting unnamed Iraqi police. The decapitated bodies had allegedly turned up on the banks of the Tigris River near Salman Pak, 15 miles southeast of Baghdad. At the time, the Interior Ministry tried to send troops to the area to confirm the discovery, but the visit was called off because the area was too dangerous. On Saturday, the U.S. military issued a statement saying it had investigated the reports of the bodies and ultimately found them to be false. "Anti-Iraqi Forces are known for purposely providing false information to the media to incite violence and revenge killings, and they may well have been the source of this misinformation," the statement said.