In damning testimony, a U.S. soldier Thursday told a court-martial he was ordered by his staff sergeant to shoot an unarmed Iraqi man and that the sergeant then laughed and told the trooper to finish the job as the dying man convulsed on the ground.
The military reported, meanwhile, it had opened an investigation of the deaths of five women and four children killed earlier this week in a village south of Baghdad where American forces had carried out ground and air assaults.
The events at issue in the court-martial and the killing of the women and children occurred in a region south of the capital known as the triangle of death, a Sunni-dominated area that has seen some of the war's most heavy fighting and gruesome deaths.
In the court-martial, 23-year-old Sgt. Evan Vela cried as he recalled shooting the unidentified Iraqi man on May 11 near Iskandariyah, a mostly Sunni Arab city 30 miles south of Baghdad.
Vela told the story during the second day of the court-martial of Spc. Jorge G. Sandoval, of Laredo, Texas. Sandoval is on trial for allegedly killing Iraqis and trying to cover up the deaths by planting weapons at the scene.
Vela said Sandoval, who was nearby providing security, was not present during the May 11 killing. Sandoval has pleaded not guilty to five charges, including the April 27 murder of a second unidentified Iraqi man and placing a detonation wire on his body. He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted.
Prosecutors claim the May 11 case involved the killing an Iraqi man with a 9mm pistol, placing an AK-47 rifle by his body and failing to ensure humane treatment of a detainee - the victim.
Vela said Staff Sgt. Michael Hensley of Candler, North Carolina, told him to shoot the man, who had stumbled upon their snipers' hideout, although he was not armed and had his hands in the air when he approached the soldiers.
"He (Hensley) asked me if I was ready. I had the pistol out. I heard the word shoot. I don't remember pulling the trigger. It took me a second to realize that the shot came from the pistol in my hand," he said, crying and speaking barely above a whisper.
Vela said that as the Iraqi man was convulsing on the ground, "Hensley kind of laughed about it and hit the guy on the throat and said shoot again."
"After he (the Iraqi man) was shot, Hensley pulled an AK-47 out of his rucksack and said, 'This is what we are going to say happened,'" Vela said, before he was dismissed from the witness stand to compose himself.
Both Vela of Rigby, Idaho, and Hensley are also charged in the case but will be court-martialed separately.
The three soldiers are part of the Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, based at Fort Richardson, Alaska.
Vela was flown from Kuwait to testify under a deal that bars his account of events from being used against him when he goes to trial.
Military prosecutors said the killings in which the three men are charged occurred between April and June near Iskandariyah.
The investigation began after military authorities received reports of alleged wrongdoing from fellow soldiers, the Army has said.
Sandoval was arrested in June while on a two-week leave visiting his family.
Vela's defense attorney, Gary Myers, claimed earlier this week that Army snipers hunting insurgents in Iraq were under orders to "bait" their targets with suspicious materials, such as detonation cords, then kill those who picked up the items. He said his client was acting on "orders."
A second Vela lawyer, James Culp, said: "Our client is no murderer. The world will consider him to be a victim in this case." He said Vela had only slept three hours the night before the incident and that the soldiers had been on a sniping mission for four days.
Asked about the existance of the "baiting program," Capt. Craig Drummond, Sandoval's military defense attorney, said it was unclear "what programs were going on out there and when," especially "if there were things that were done that made the rules of engagment not clear."
Sgt. 1st Class Tarrol Petersen, who instructs snipers at Ft. Benning, Georgia, testified as an expert witness that snipers need sufficient rest.
"You can only last for so long when you are on a mission. As snipers we look through a scope, we see a face. It's a lot different than shooting someone 100 meters away with an ordinary rifle. When snipers break, they break bad," Petersen said.
In Other Developments:
In the incident south of Baghdad in which the five women and four children died, the military said U.S. forces were targeting al Qaeda in Iraq-linked fighters in ground and air operations late Tuesday in the village of Babahani before the bodies were discovered.
Two area police officers told The Associated Press that U.S. fighter jets bombed two houses before dawn Wednesday in the predominantly Sunni village, about 10 miles west of Musayyib. The women and children were killed in the first house struck, and the second house was damaged, they said.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information, said ground forces raided a local mosque and the preacher, Imam Hassan Abboud al-Janabi, also was killed. The military had no immediate response to the claim.
The bodies of the five women and four children were taken to a local hospital on Wednesday, the military said, citing local police.
Amer Zamil, an employee in Mussayib hospital, said two of the children were decapitated, evidently in the bombing.
The military said buildings in the area have been used as al Qaeda hideouts and material for making roadside bombs, including wire, batteries and timers, was found in a nearby house.
Musayyib is 40 miles south of Baghdad.
The police said the targeted village was a stronghold of insurgents who have prevented Iraqi security forces from entering.
Also Thursday, Iraq's Sunni vice president held a rare meeting with the country's reclusive top Shiite cleric to seek support for a 25-point blueprint for political reform, the latest in a series of efforts by both Islamic sects to promote unity.
Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi said Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani praised his initiative during their two-hour meeting in the holy city of Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad. The Shiite spiritual leader previously has met with Sunni clerics, but this was his first meeting with a senior government official from the disaffected minority Islamic sect, aides said.
"He generally blesses the initiative," al-Hashemi said, saying he found al-Sistani politically "neutral" and eager to promote national unity.
Al-Sistani has played a key role in shaping the political future of Iraq following the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime and wields considerable influence over Shiite politicians and their followers.
By Associated Press Writer Katarina Kratovac