When Will War Itself Become the Crime?

Shadowy tactics of US troops in Iraq
By RICHARD LUSCOMBE

A MILITARY prosecutor called it “a simple case” of murder. But the conviction of a US army sniper in Baghdad for the killing of an unarmed man has provided a glimpse of the shadowy tactics employed by American forces in Iraq and the sleep-deprived conditions under which they are forced to operate.

Jurors at the court-martial of Sergeant Evan Vela yesterday took three hours to find him guilty of murder without premeditation and making false statements for his role in the execution of the Iraqi civilian in May last year.

Vela, who had faced life in jail, was sentenced to ten years, after which he will receive a dishonourable discharge. His case is automatically referred to a military appeal court.

The court heard the Iraqi man, Genei Nesir Khudair al-Janabi, stumbled across a hideout occupied by Vela and his sniper team 30 miles south of Baghdad: he was shot once in the head to prevent him alerting a gang of suspected Iraqi insurgents nearby.

Defence lawyers claimed Vela, a married father of two, had slept for less than five of the previous 72 hours and that his judgment was impaired by exhaustion when he followed the orders of a superior to pull the trigger.

“This was an accident waiting to happen,” his lawyer, James Culp, said. “These men were extremely sleep-deprived and nobody was thinking clearly.”

Vela wept on the witness stand as he recalled the events of the night of 11 May, 2007, but said his memory of events was hazy.

“I heard the word ‘shoot’. My next memory is the man was dead. It took me a minute for me to realise the shot came from the pistol in my hand. I don’t remember pulling the trigger,” he said.

However, according to prosecutors, the group was thinking clearly enough to try to cover up the murder by planting an AK-47 rifle on the dead man’s body.

Details of the secret policy of taking weapons on operations to plant on victims emerged during evidence given by the group’s leader, Sgt Mark Hensley, who admitted ordering Vela to fire the fatal shot, but who was acquitted of murder last year.

The court also heard it was an accepted policy for US snipers’ units to carry fake explosives and other weapons as bait, leave them out in the open, then to shoot any suspected insurgents who tried to take them.

Iraq’s human rights minister, Wijdan Mikhail Salim, has denounced the tactic and said she did not believe Mr Janabi’s killing was justified or an accident.

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