Iraqi may hang for murders of 2 U.S. soldiers

BAGHDAD — An alleged al Qaida in Iraq member should be hanged for his role in the 2006 kidnapping, torture and execution of two American soldiers, an Iraqi court decided Tuesday.

Ibrahim Karim al Qaraghuli was found guilty of the murders by a three-judge panel in Iraq's Central Criminal Court in Baghdad after a three-hour trial. Two others accused of participating in the killings, Whalid Khalid al Kartani and Kazim Fadhil al Zowbai, were found not guilty for lack of evidence.

It wasn't clear when the two might be released or whether they could be tried again if new evidence emerges. Officials also couldn't say how long it might be before Qaraghuli is executed. He has 30 days to appeal the verdict, said Hugh Geoghegan, a spokesman for the U.S.'s Law and Order Task Force in Iraq.

Pfc. Kristian Menchaca, 23, of Houston and Pfc. Thomas Tucker, 25, of Madras, Ore., were captured after a firefight near Baghdad on June 16, 2006. Searchers found their badly mutilated bodies three days later. A third soldier, Spc. David Babineau, 25, of Springfield, Mass., died during the gun battle.

U.S. forces arrested the three alleged al Qaida in Iraq members between July 2006 and July 2007. They eventually were charged with the soldiers' murders under Iraq's civilian anti-terrorism law.

Tuesday's verdict was unanimous. The suspects, all middle-aged Iraqis, have denied involvement in the soldiers' killings.

Physical evidence against Qaraghuli appeared to be the reason that he was convicted. Investigators have said they found his fingerprints on a truck that was used to drag Menchaca and Tucker through the streets after they were kidnapped. Iraqi villagers who witnessed the dragging gave statements connecting the other two suspects to the killings, but none of the witnesses showed up to testify Tuesday, Geoghegan said.

Their statements were read aloud in court, but defense attorneys argued that the evidence was nothing more than hearsay without the witnesses present, he said.

Babineau, Tucker and Menchaca were members of the 1st Platoon, B Company, 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, assigned to the 101st Airborne Division, from Fort Campbell, Ky.

Three days after Tucker and Menchaca went missing, searchers found their bodies in Yusifiya, about 12 miles south of Baghdad, near where they'd been captured. They were burnt, tied together and booby-trapped with explosives. Menchaca's throat had been split. Tucker had been decapitated.

The two, along with Babineau, had driven away from their platoon to stand guard at a movable bridge in what was then one of the most dangerous areas in Iraq.

Other soldiers in their unit were guarding a checkpoint nearby when they heard an explosion followed by gunfire at about 8 p.m. By the time they reached the bridge, Babineau was dead and Menchaca and Tucker were gone.

Military investigators later concluded that the soldiers never should have been left alone and that numerous mistakes by their superiors left them vulnerable to attack. A platoon leader and a company commander were relieved of their duties as a result.

Several other suspected al Qaida in Iraq members are thought to have participated in the soldiers' murders, but investigators haven't been able to gather enough evidence to charge anyone else. One suspect was killed in firefight about a month after the murders.

U.S. officials have rejected speculation that insurgents targeted the soldiers for revenge. Soon after their deaths, however, five members of their unit were charged with the March 2006 rape and murder of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl in a village near Yusifiya. The girl's parents and sister also were murdered.

Four of the soldiers were convicted. One is still awaiting trial.

(Reilly reports for the Merced (Calif.) Sun-Star.)


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