- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 9, 2008

BAGHDAD (AP) — The former commander of a U.S. Army sniper team testified yesterday that he ordered one of his soldiers to kill an Iraqi who had stumbled on their hiding place, 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 last spring but was later demoted, gave his testimony on the opening day of a court-martial hearing a murder charge against Sgt. Evan Vela.

Another member of the sniper unit testified the soldiers had been pushed to the brink of physical and mental exhaustion before the May 11 killing of Genei Nasir al-Janabi.

Meanwhile, in Iraq, five American soldiers were killed in two roadside bombings, the U.S. military reported today.

Four of the deaths occurred in Baghdad and one in Tamim province, of which Kirkuk is the capital, the military said in separate statements. The five were killed during operations yesterday. The bombing in Tamim province also wounded three soldiers. The military gave no further information.

Sgt. Hensley said that he and the other members of the sniper team had all fallen asleep, then awoke to find an Iraqi man squatting about three feet from them.

Sgt. Hensley said he ordered the Iraqi to lie on the ground and was searching the man when he saw “military-aged men” who he thought were carrying weapons about 100 yards away.

He said the Iraqi on the ground 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.

“I told Sgt. Vela to pull out his 9 mm [pistol] and ‘crack it.’ I told Vela to shoot,” said Sgt. Hensley, who was acquitted in November of murder charges in this shooting and two earlier killings but was convicted of lesser charges. He received immunity for testifying yesterday.

When asked why he didn’t kill Mr. al-Janabi himself, Sgt. Hensley said: “Sgt. Vela happened to be the guy with the pistol. The Iraqi’s head was at [Sgt. Vela’s] feet. I would have gladly shot him myself.”

Military prosecutors say the killing of Mr. al-Janabi — along with two other slayings April 14 and April 27 — occurred near Iskandariyah, a mostly Sunni Arab city 30 miles south of Baghdad.

Sgt. Vela, from St. Anthony, Idaho, also is charged with planting an AK-47 assault rifle on the dead man’s body in an attempt to cover up what had happened.

Mustafa Ghani al-Janabi, Mr. al-Janabi’s 17-year-old son, testified that he had been detained by the soldiers along with his father. He said that after about an hour, the soldiers let him go, but kept his father.

Two other soldiers — Sgt. Hensley, of Candler, N.C., and Spc. Jorge G. Sandoval Jr., of Laredo, Texas — have faced similar charges in Mr. al-Janabi’s killing as well as the other two slayings. They were acquitted of murder but convicted of planting evidence on the dead Iraqis.

Spc. Sandoval was sentenced to five months in prison, his rank was reduced to private and his pay was withheld. Sgt. 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.

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