Prosecutors Shun Excuses for Accused GIs

The Associated Press
Tuesday, August 8, 2006; 7:59 PM

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- A U.S. Army private on Tuesday described the ever-present fear of death gripping his unit, whose members stand accused of raping and murdering a 14-year-old girl and killing her family in Iraq's infamous "Triangle of Death."

"You're just walking a death walk," Pfc. Justin Cross told a hearing to determine whether five fellow soldiers must stand trial in the March 12 attack near Mahmoudiya.

But prosecutors argued that the threats of war, arduous missions and frequent loss of life were no excuse for rape and murder.

"Murder not war. Rape not war. That's what were here talking about today," prosecutor Capt. Alex Pickands said in his closing argument before the three-day hearing concluded. "Cold food didn't kill that family. Personnel assignments didn't rape and murder that 14-year-old little girl."

Pickands said the suspects "gathered together over cards and booze and came up with a plan to rape and murder that little girl."

The hearing officer must forward a recommendation to the brigade commander, Col. Todd Ebel, who must decide whether to order a trial.

Spc. James P. Barker, Sgt. Paul E. Cortez, Pfc. Jesse V. Spielman and Pfc. Bryan L. Howard are accused of raping and murdering the girl and killing her parents and 5-year-old sister. Another soldier, Sgt. Anthony W. Yribe, is accused of failing to report the attack but is not alleged to have participated.

Testimony during the Article 32 hearing, the military equivalent of a grand jury, has painted a picture of a demoralized unit, drained emotionally after the deaths of comrades and exhausted after the frequent attacks in the mostly Sunni Arab area, a stronghold of al-Qaida in Iraq and other religious extremists.

"It drives you nuts. You feel like every step you might get blown up," Cross told the hearing. "You just hit a point where you're like, 'If I die today, I die.'"

Cross said the unit was "full of despair," and he feared dying at his post before he could go home.

"I couldn't sleep mainly for fear we would be attacked," Cross said. He said the deaths of two soldiers at a checkpoint "pretty much crushed the platoon."

To cope with the stress, he said, soldiers turned to whiskey _ a violation of U.S. regulations in Iraq _ and painkillers to ease their fears.

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