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Originally published Wednesday, April 23, 2014 at 9:15 PM

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Soldier accused of killing unarmed boys in Iraq

A hearing opened Wednesday at Joint Base Lewis-McChord for a former soldier accused of killing two young Iraqi brothers without cause.

The Associated Press


JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD — Two unarmed Iraqi brothers posed no threat as they herded cattle in a palm grove where a U.S. Army reconnaissance team was hidden one day seven years ago, a former soldier said Wednesday at a preliminary hearing.

But then-Staff Sgt. Michael Barbera took a knee, leveled his rifle and killed them, ex- Spc. John Lotempio said.

“Oh my God, why?” Lotempio said when a prosecutor asked him to describe his reaction to the killings. “They didn’t see us.”

Barbera, 31, now a sergeant first-class, faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison if convicted of premeditated murder in a case that raised concerns about a possible cover-up. Two years after the killings, Army investigators looked into the case, but commanders gave Barbera a letter of reprimand instead of a court-martial.

It was only after a Pittsburgh newspaper, The Tribune-Review, published an investigation into the matter in 2012 that the Army took another look. The story described how some fellow soldiers remained troubled that Barbera was not prosecuted. It prompted calls from Congress for an Army review.

As the hearing began Wednesday at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Barbera’s attorney, David Coombs, called the allegations baseless and highlighted lingering questions about why it has taken so long to bring the case to court. Investigating officer Lt. Col. Charles N. Floyd is considering whether Barbera should face a court-martial.

Coombs alleged that the newspaper’s “hit piece,” which won an investigative reporting award, and congressional pressure had improperly influenced the Army’s decision to file charges.

Barbera’s fellow soldiers didn’t begin to come forward to report concerns about the shooting until 2009, and a criminal investigation was conducted then. The matter was “somehow put to bed by administrative action,” Capt. Ben Hillner, an Army prosecutor, said in his opening.

Lotempio said he witnessed the shootings but didn’t report them at the time because he didn’t know “the proper way to go about it.” He has suffered from nightmares about the killings, he said, and he felt guilty because he was the one who first noticed the boys and woke Barbera, who shot them.

He said “absolutely not” when asked if the boys posed a threat: “They looked to be about 10 or 11.”

Even if the boys were acting as scouts for Iraqi fighters, they couldn’t have seen the soldiers, especially from such a great distance, because they were behind a log and thoroughly covered with tall grass, Lotempio said.

After Barbera killed the first boy with a shot to the head, the second waved and yelled, “Hello, mister! Hello!” Lotempio said. Barbera fired a second shot that killed him.

Lotempio said the shootings contravened the rules of engagement for the mission, which was not to fight unless the enemy had the means, opportunity and intent to cause harm.

Coombs argued in his opening that even though the soldiers’ rules of engagement required them to report violations, it was two years before any raised concerns.

Further, he said, the reporter who wrote the stories, a former Marine named Carl Prine, was too ready to believe what Barbera’s former comrades told him.

Prine was called as a witness Wednesday to testify about an allegation that Barbera threatened Prine’s wife in 2011, saying words to the effect of: “For your own personal safety, you need to tell your husband to back off the story,” Hillner said.

That’s the basis of another charge against Barbera. He’s also accused of trying to get a soldier in 2009 to tell investigators that the boys might have worn suicide vests.

Prine told the investigating officer he did not expect his newspaper would be willing to turn over videotapes of interviews done for the story.

The shootings were near the village of As Sadah, in Diyala province. Barbera led an eight-man reconnaissance team that had planned to remain secreted in the grove for two to three days monitoring possible enemy activity.

After the brothers were killed, Barbera’s group also killed their cousin, who approached the scene along a footpath. No charges were filed in that shooting.

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