BAGHDAD - The former commander of a US Army sniper team testified yesterday that he ordered one of his soldiers to kill an Iraqi who had stumbled upon their hiding place, saying that was the only way to ensure the safety of his men in hostile territory.
Sergeant Michael A. Hensley, who was a staff sergeant at the time of the killing last spring but was later demoted, gave his testimony on the opening day of a court-martial hearing a murder charge against Sergeant Evan Vela.
Another member of the sniper unit testified the soldiers had been pushed to the brink of physical and mental exhaustion before the May 11 killing of Genei Nasir al-Janabi.
Hensley said that he and the other members of the sniper team had all fallen asleep, then awoke to find an Iraqi man squatting about three feet from them.
Hensley said he ordered the Iraqi to lie on the ground and was searching the man when he saw "military-aged men" who he thought were carrying weapons about 100 yards away.
He said the Iraqi on the ground began yelling and he decided that killing the man was the only way to keep the sniper hideout from being discovered by what he believed was a group of approaching insurgents.
"I told Sergeant Vela to pull out his 9-mm [pistol] and 'crack it.' I told Vela to shoot," said Hensley, who has been acquitted of murder charges in this shooting and two earlier killings but was convicted of lesser charges. He received immunity for testifying yesterday.
When asked why he didn't kill Janabi himself, Hensley said: "Sergeant Vela happened to be the guy with the pistol. The Iraqi's head was at his [Vela's] feet. I would have gladly shot him myself."
Military prosecutors say the killing of Janabi - along with two other slayings April 14 and April 27 - occurred near Iskandariyah, a mostly Sunni Arab city 30 miles south of Baghdad.
Vela, of St. Anthony, Idaho, also is charged with planting a gun on the dead man's body in an attempt to cover up what happened.
Mustafa Ghani al-Janabi, Janabi's 17-year-old son, testified that he had been detained by the soldiers along with his father. He said that after about an hour, the soldiers let him go but kept his father.
Earlier, Vela's lawyer said during his opening statement that his client was too exhausted to know what he was doing or to make any sort of moral judgment about the order Hensley gave him.
"He was suffering from sleep deprivation and had no ability to think that morning," attorney James Culp told the court.
Another defense lawyer, Daniel Conway, told reporters during the lunch break that Vela had slept just 2 1/2 hours during a 74-hour period last spring. "The Army took the best and brightest and pushed them beyond their breaking point," he said.
On June 22, Vela gave a statement to military investigators saying he killed one of the Iraqis. But Culp said yesterday that the statement was given under duress, saying Vela was not permitted to use the latrine or to eat during a seven-hour interrogation.
Two other soldiers, Hensley and Specialist Jorge G. Sandoval Jr., have faced similar charges in Janabi's killing as well as two others. They were acquitted of murder but convicted of planting evidence on the dead Iraqis.