US soldier admits to rape and murder of 14-year-old Iraqi girl

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One of the four US soldiers accused of raping and murdering a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and of then murdering her family pleaded guilty yesterday and agreed to testify against the other defendants.

Specialist James Barker of the 101st Airborne Division agreed to the plea deal at a military tribunal in Kentucky to avoid the death penalty, his lawyer David Sheldon, said.

Prosecutors assert that the four men raped the teenage girl then killed her, her parents and her seven-year-old sister in the family's home in Mahmoudiya, a village about 20 miles south of Baghdad.

The other three men are Pte Jesse Spielman, Pte Bryan Howard and Sgt Paul Cortez, all members of the 502nd Infantry, 101st Airborne Division. They are charged with rape and premeditated murder. They are also charged with arson after prosecutors alleged they doused the body of the rape victim with kerosene and set it on fire.

Cortez was also arraigned yesterday at the start of his court-martial. He is likely to enter a plea on 11 December and could be sentenced to death if convicted. In addition former soldier Steven Green has been charged in a civilian court and is awaiting trial in a Kentucky jail.

The damaging case comes as the top US commander in the Middle East flatly opposed any fixed timetable for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, saying it would hamper the ability of both the US and Iraqi forces from dealing with the ever-spiralling violence.

General John Abizaid, head of US Central Command told the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday that a timetable would remove all "flexibility' on the handover to Iraqi forces of responsibility for maintaining security.

Gen Abizaid was the first top military figure to appear before Congress since the ousting of Donald Rumsfeld from the Pentagon.

He was speaking on another day of violence in Iraq, which included the deaths of six more US soldiers, bringing the total lost to 2,858 since the March 2003 invasion.