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Soldier: Sergeant from N.C. ordered me to shoot unarmed Iraqi man


By KATARINA KRATOVAC, Associated Press

BAGHDAD - A U.S. soldier broke down in tears Thursday as he testified that he was ordered to shoot an unarmed Iraqi man, and that his sergeant, a North Carolina man, laughed and told the trooper to finish the job as the man convulsed on the ground.

Sgt. Evan Vela's testimony came during 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, Sandoval and Staff Sgt. Michael Hensley of Candler, N.C., are all charged in the case.

Vela testified that Hensley told him to shoot the Iraqi man, although he was not armed and had his hands in the air when he approached the soldiers.

"He 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 laughed about it and hit the guy on the throat and said shoot again."

"After he (the Iraqi man) was shot, Sgt. Hensley pulled an AK-47 out of his rucksack and said, 'This is what we are going to say happened,'" Vela said. He was dismissed from the witness stand to compose himself.

Vela said Sandoval, who was nearby providing security, was not present during the killing outside Iskandariyah, a mostly Sunni Arab city 30 miles south of Baghdad.

Sandoval faces five charges, including an April 27 murder of an unknown Iraqi male, placing a detonation wire on his body, premeditated murder of the Iraqi on May 11, placing an AK-47 rifle on his body and failing to ensure humane treatment of a detainee - the victim.

He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted. He has pleaded not guilty.

Vela, of Rigby, Idaho, was flown from Kuwait to testify under a deal that would bar his words from being used against him when he stands before a court-martial.

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."

The Washington Post, which first reported the "baiting" program, said it was devised by the Army's Asymmetric Warfare Group, which advises commanders in unconventional conflicts.

Within months of the "baiting" program's introduction, Sandoval, Vela and Hensley were charged with murder for allegedly using those tactics to make shootings seem legitimate, according to the Post.

The Army has declined to confirm such a program existed.

The Iraq 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. Iraqis have accused American soldiers of unnecessary killings or abuse.

Vela, Sandoval and Hensley are part of the Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, based at Fort Richardson, Alaska.

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