An Iraqi medic has provided graphic testimony against four American soldiers accused of raping a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and killing three of her relatives. The US military hearing, which began in Baghdad yesterday and is expected to last several days, will decide whether there is sufficient evidence to take the case to a court martial.
The medic, who was not named for his own safety, told the hearing he was the first to arrive at a house in Mahmoudiya, south of Baghdad, after the 12 March attack. He said he found the girl, Abeer Qassim al-Janabi, lying naked in the house, her torso and head burned. She had a single bullet wound beneath her left eye. In the next room, he said he found the body of Abeer's sister, Hadeel, the back of her head blown out by a bullet. Qassim and Fikhriya, the children's parents, were also dead, their mother's torso riddled with bullets. After witnessing the scene, he said he was ill for weeks.
Sgt Paul Cortez, Specialist James Barker, Pte Jesse Spielman and Pte Bryan Howard face charges of rape and murder. According to an FBI affidavit, the men changed into civilian clothes after a drinking session and walked to the victims' house, 200 metres from their military checkpoint in a Sunni area south of Baghdad. After the attack the soldiers are accused of setting fire to the victim's body in an attempt to cover their tracks.
Steven Green, also accused of taking part in the attack but no longer in the US Army, was arrested in North Carolina in June and has pleaded not guilty to a federal court. He is being held without bond. Sgt Anthony Yribe is charged with failing to report the attack but is not alleged to have taken part.
Mindful that any perceived leniency will strain relations with the newly elected Iraqi government, US officials have assured Iraqis that the accusations will be taken seriously and that if found guilty, the four soldiers will be severely punished. The Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has demanded an independent investigation.
Reporters are prevented from observing the hearing, and the witnesses' identities are being kept secret for fear they could be targeted by insurgents for collaborating with US authorities. But yesterday, after the secret testimony of two other witnesses, reporters were allowed in to hear the medic's account. Military prosecutors showed the man a series of gory images of the crime scene to confirm whether the bodies were in the same position as when he entered the house.
Defence attorneys alleged the photos were staged and questioned whether the victims were already dead when they were sprayed with American bullets. The lawyer for Specialist Barker said the soldiers' behaviour was influenced by the stressful environment in the Mahmoudiya area, known as the "Triangle of Death".
If a court martial is given the go-ahead and the soldiers are then found guilty, those accused of murder could face the death penalty.
The case is the latest in a series of alleged atrocities that have undermined American efforts to quell the insurgency in Iraq.
Two US military inquiries have been investigating the alleged massacre of 24 Iraqi civilians by US Marines in the town of Haditha.
Four other American soldiers are accused of murdering three Iraqi detainees near Samarra in May. Earlier this month a military prosecutor called the men "war criminals" as he called for them to face a court martial, but a hearing ended on Friday without a decision on any future trial.
In another case, seven US Marines and a navy sailor are accused of killing a disabled Iraqi man in Hamdaniya four months ago.