US soldier to face trial over murder of superior officers in Iraq

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The Independent Online

A military tribunal recommended yesterday that Staff Sergeant Alberto Martinez, 37, be tried and face a possible death sentence if convicted of killing two officers. He may also be charged with the "use of a weapon of mass destruction" against a US citizen abroad.

Captain Philip Esposito and Lieutenant Louis Allen died in an explosion at a military base in Tikrit. It was thought at first that an insurgent rocket was responsible for the attack on one of Saddam Hussein's palaces which had been taken over by the US military. But army investigators have accused Staff Sgt Martinez of using mines and grenades to carry out the blast.

The same type of fragmentation grenades were used in the latter stages of the Vietnam War when soldiers - resentful at being sent to an unpopular war - targeted those above them. The inevitable analogy is the one the US authorities are desperate to avoid.

In many cases, the attacks in Vietnam were mounted by older non-commissioned officers against younger officers. In just two years, between 1969 and 1971, the Army recorded 600 counts of "fragging" which led to 82 deaths and 651 injuries.

Discontent among US servicemen and their British allies about the Iraq conflict has grown hugely since President George Bush officially declared a victorious conclusion to the war.

The "Vietnam syndrome" is now openly talked about in Iraq but senior officers are determined that "fragging" will not enter the lexicon of this conflict.

Lawyers for Staff Sgt Martinez had argued that he should be tried by a civil court rather than a court martial because when the alleged murders took place, on 7 June this year, the US was no longer officially at war in Iraq.

The plea was rejected. And, at yesterday's tribunal - held at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait - the investigating officer, Colonel Patrick Reinert, declared "aggravating factors" could permit capital punishment.

A witness, Captain Carl Prober, told the tribunal that Staff Sgt Martinez, an explosives specialist, had said he hated Captain Esposito and was "going to frag him".

Col Reinert said: "I recommend a general court martial. There was no evidence the accused was not mentally responsible at the time of the crimes. There is reasonable grounds to believe he committed the offences alleged ... there is reasonable cause to believe he had the motive and the opportunity to commit these offences."

Col Reinert's recommendation, which came after a two-day hearing, will be submitted to Lt-GenJohn Vines, the deputy US commander in Iraq.

Captain Esposito, 30, a West Point graduate, from New York, and Lt Allen, 34, from Pennsylvania, were with the Headquarters Company of the 42nd Infantry Division.

Some colleagues of Staff Sgt Martinez, of Schaghitcoke, New York, described him as an "exemplary soldier". But details have emerged of how he was suspected of an arson attack, aimed at defrauding his insurance company, on a previous home in Albany.

A US officer said: "Fragging has not happened since Vietnam, so this is obviously something which should be considered seriously. In Vietnam, there was a disintegration of discipline as the war went on. That cannot be allowed to happen here."

A New York psychologist, Laurence Kolman, who is a Vietnam veteran, said that in places where killings had become the norm, soldiers entered an altered state of consciousness. "He is basically overwhelmed by the environment. He's thinking, 'I'm going to rectify it with the way things are rectified in Iraq'".

Walt Henderson, a stress counsellor who also served in Vietnam, added: "Living in an atmosphere of violence, being involved in a war over which people at home are divided, will have an effect on any individual."

The US Army is believed to be investigating a number of other incidents involving attacks by soldiers on other soldiers, although none has caused fatalities.