Soldier Convicted Of Killing Unarmed Iraqi

(AP) A U.S. Army sniper accused of killing an unarmed Iraqi civilian and planting evidence on his body was found guilty on all charges Sunday.

Jurors deliberated for three hours before finding Sgt. Evan Vela guilty of murder without premeditation. He had previously been charged with premeditated murder, but that charge was changed during his court-martial in Baghdad.

Vela was also found guilty of making a false official statement and of conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline.

He faces a possible sentence of life in prison. After the verdict, the court adjourned for a short break, then entered a sentencing phase Sunday afternoon.

Vela showed no emotion as the verdict was read. Two of his lawyers leaned over and gave him a light hug over the shoulders, before leading him out of the courtroom on a U.S. military base in Baghdad.

Defense lawyers had claimed the May 11 killing of Genei Nasir al-Janabi was an accident, brought on by extreme exhaustion and sleep deprivation Vela and his fellow snipers experienced. But military prosecutors called it a simple case of murder.

"It's a simple case," said Capt. Jason Nef, one of two military prosecutors. "The reason is because Vela confessed on the stand that he lied. He confessed he killed an unarmed Iraqi."

Vela, who is from St. Anthony, Idaho, wept on the witness stand Saturday as he described shooting al-Janabi after he stumbled upon the snipers' hiding place near Iskandariyah, 30 miles south of Baghdad.

"I don't remember pulling the trigger. I don't remember the sound of the shot," Vela said in a near whisper, softly thumbing the hem of his camouflage jacket and looking straight ahead. "It took me a few seconds to realize that the shot came from my pistol."

He testified that after he shot al-Janabi, he tried to shoot him again because "he was convulsing on the ground and I thought he might be suffering."

"I just didn't want him to suffer. It was something I've never seen and I got a bit scared," Vela said. The second shot missed the man.

James Culp, Vela's attorney, had unsuccessfully argued that Vela was too sleep deprived to know what he was doing.

"This was an accident waiting to happen," Culp told the jury of seven men and one woman in his closing argument Sunday. "What happened on May 11 is clear: These men were extremely, extremely sleep deprived and nobody was thinking clearly."

Vela and his sniper team had hiked through rough terrain and slept less than five hours in the 72-hours leading up to the killing, the defense said.

Culp also called two medical experts who testified that Vela was suffering from acute sleep deprivation and exhaustion. They said he later lied about the events in part because he suffers from post traumatic stress syndrome.

On Friday, Vela's commanding officer testified that he ordered Vela to kill al-Janabi, saying that was the only way to ensure the safety of his men in hostile territory.

Sgt. Michael A. Hensley, who was a staff sergeant at the time of the killing but was later demoted, testified that he and the other members of the sniper team had all fallen asleep, then awoke to find al-Janabi squatting about three feet from them.

What happened on May 11 is clear: These men were extremely, extremely sleep deprived and nobody was thinking clearly.

James Culp, Vela's attorneyHensley said he ordered the man to lie on the ground and was searching him when he saw "military-aged men" who he thought were carrying weapons about 100 yards away.

He said al-Janabi began yelling, and he decided that killing the man was the only way to keep the sniper hide-out from being discovered by what he believed was a group of approaching insurgents.

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 two other 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.

Sen. Ensign: We Shouldn’t Leave Iraq Soon

Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., rejected calls Saturday for the withdrawal of U.S. troops in Iraq by the end of the year, saying the decision should be based on "conditions on the ground and not on politics."

Speaking to reporters by conference call from Baghdad, Ensign said he now has "much more optimism" about the war in Iraq because of improved security following last year's increase in American troops.

His comments came amid a weekend tour of Iraq with Republican Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Jim DeMint of South Carolina. The contingent met Saturday with top Iraqi leaders, as well as with Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq.

The visit came two days after Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., chairman of the House defense appropriations subcommittee, said he's preparing legislation that would give President Bush the war funding he wants this year, but on the condition that troops leave Iraq by the end of the year.

Ensign said "it's impossible to say" how long American troops will remain in Iraq, but Iraqi leaders warned the contingent that a pullout "too soon" would embolden Iran and al Qaeda.

"It should be based on conditions on the ground and not on politics," he said. "I strongly believe the American policy in Iraq should be to ensure a stable Iraq ... able to defend itself not only from within but from without. If we leave now, Iran will over-run it."

Petraeus has said he did not want to see the remainder of U.S. forces cut back too quickly after the withdrawal of an extra 30,000 troops by summer - a move that would leave roughly 130,000 to 135,000 troops, the same number as before President Bush sent the reinforcements.

Petraeus is scheduled to report to the president and Congress in April on possible additional cutbacks and any recommended changes in strategy.

Ensign, a strong supporter of the Bush administration's war policy, said he saw progress firsthand Saturday when he visited a town south of Baghdad.

He said the town was about a 25-minute helicopter ride south of Baghdad but he didn't know its name. Wearing flak jackets, the senators were accompanied on the tour by about 20 to 25 U.S. soldiers.

"In November, it was a disaster and al Qaeda was completely in control," Ensign said. "Today it was a situation where I could walk down the street and interact with children and local merchants. I felt no danger whatsoever to my life."

Ensign said the vast majority of Iraq, including Baghdad, can report similar progress.

The senators' visit came a day after four American troops were killed in roadside bombings in Baghdad.

Ensign attributed the changes to greater cooperation from local sheiks, improved Iraqi security forces and more armed volunteers who help American troops patrol streets.

"Overall, I come away with much more optimism about what's happening in Iraq, although there are still major challenges ahead," he said. "While still significant, al Qaeda is in little pockets and separated from each other."

The senators were scheduled to spend the weekend in Iraq and visit Afghanistan on Monday before returning to Washington.

Ensign said he's also more optimistic because of political progress in Iraq that is "not widely reported in America."

"The Iraqi people are rejecting the insurgency and al Qaeda and the civil war that it looked like last year," he said. "They're tired of it and they want economic prosperity."

Al Qaeda Diaries And Memos

A diary and another document seized during U.S. raids show some al Qaeda in Iraq leaders fear the terror group is crumbling, with many fighters defecting to American-backed neighborhood groups, the U.S. military said Sunday.

The military revealed two documents discovered by American troops in November: a 39-page memo written by a mid- to high-level al Qaeda official with knowledge of the group's operations in Iraq's western Anbar province, and a 16-page diary written by another group leader north of Baghdad.

In the Anbar document, the author describes an al Qaeda in crisis, with citizens growing weary of militants' presence and foreign fighters too eager to participate in suicide missions rather than continuing to fight, said Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, a U.S. military spokesman.

"We lost cities and afterward, villages ... We find ourselves in a wasteland desert," Smith quoted the document as saying.

The memo cites militants' increasing difficulty in moving around and transporting weapons and suicide belts because of better equipped Iraqi police and more watchful citizens, Smith said.

The author of the diary seized near Balad wrote that he was once in charge of 600 fighters, but only 20 were left "after the tribes changed course"- a reference to how many Sunni tribesmen have switched sides to fight alongside the Americans, Smith said.

The switch by the Sunni tribes, whose resulting U.S.-backed groups are often referred to as awakening councils, has been credited with helping reduce violence across the country.

The councils were key to helping push al Qaeda out of Anbar province, once one of the country's most violent. The terror group's top leaders are now based somewhere in northern Iraq, Smith said, having moved out of Anbar and into Diyala province last year.

The U.S. military described both documents, but allowed reporters to see just four pages from them, citing security reasons.

The documents tell "narrow but compelling stories of the challenges al Qaeda in Iraq is facing," Smith told reporters in Baghdad's heavily guarded Green Zone.

"This does not signal the end of al Qaeda in Iraq, but it is a contemporary account of the challenges posed to terrorists from the people of Iraq," Smith said.

He said the documents are believed to be authentic, Smith said, because they contain details that only al Qaeda in Iraq leaders could know about battlefield movements and tactics.

More Iraq Violence

A suicide car bomb exploded at a checkpoint manned by U.S.-backed Sunni tribesmen in northern Iraq on Sunday, wounding four of the men, police said.

The attack took place around 11 a.m. near Hawija, about 30 miles southwest of Kirkuk. The area, a longtime Sunni militant stronghold, has seen an increase in violence as militants flee northward away from U.S.-Iraqi offensives around Baghdad and its surrounding belts.

But back in November, Hawija hosted what the U.S. military called the largest Sunni volunteer effort since the Iraq war began. Nearly 6,000 Sunni residents joined forces with the Americans - manning checkpoints across the area - to oust al Qaeda-inspired militants from their hometowns.

Four of those security volunteers were wounded in Sunday's car bombing, said Brig. Sarhad Qadir of the Kiruk police department. One of the men suffered severe injuries, he said.

Kirkuk is an ethnically mixed city 180 miles north of the Iraqi capital.

Meanwhile, two Iraqi Army officers were severely wounded in a drive-by shooting as they drove to work through western Baghdad, police said.

Gunmen opened fire on the officers' car in the predominantly Sunni Yarmouk neighborhood around 9 a.m., another officer said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.

Brig. Mohammed Bassem Abdul-Ridha and Col. Firqad Salman Alwan - who work at the Defense Ministry's General Inspector Office - were both severely injured, he said.

The Iraqi Defense Ministry had no immediate comment about the attack.

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