Friday, May 08, 2009

US War Update: Ex-Soldier Found Guilty of Rape, Murder; Hundreds of Thousands Flee Fighting in Pakistan; Military Denies Killing 147 Afghan Civilians

Ex-soldier could get death in Iraq rape, slayings

By BRETT BARROUQUERE, Associated Press Writer

PADUCAH, Ky. – A former soldier's life will be in the hands of a western Kentucky jury after the panel convicted him of raping and murdering a 14-year-old girl and killing her family in Iraq.

The 12 jurors were scheduled to reconvene Monday to weigh the penalty in the case of one-time Army Pfc. Steven Dale Green, 24, of Midland, Texas. Green was convicted Thursday in federal court in Paducah in the March 12, 2006, attack on Abeer Qassim al-Janabi and her family in a village about 20 miles south of Baghdad, Iraq.

One of Green's defense attorneys, Darren Wolff, said the strategy all along was to focus on the penalty phase and avoid a death sentence.

"Is this verdict a surprise to us? No. The goal has always been to save our client's life," Wolff said. "And, now we're going to go to the most important phase, which is the sentencing phase and we're going to accomplish that goal."

The lead prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Marisa Ford, declined comment.

Green's father, John Green, declined to comment about the verdict, but told The Associated Press that he might testify during the penalty phase of the trial.

In Youssifiyah, a town near where the incident took place, there was praise for the verdict mixed with lingering anger and skepticism.

"If American court has convicted the American soldier I will consider the U.S. government to be just and fair," said Mohammed Abbas Muhsin, 36, an employee at a municipal electricity department. "This verdict will give the rights back to the family, the relatives and the clan of the victim Abeer."

But Ahmed Fadhil al-Khafaji, a 32-year-old barber, said, "The American court and government are just trying to show the world that they are fair and just." He added, "If they are really serious about it, they should hand the soldier over to an Iraqi court to be kept in Abu Ghraib prison and tried by Iraqis."

Civil servant Qassim Abed, 45, said, "Even if this court convicts him, I don't believe he will go to prison," he said. "The court should sentence them all to death for their horrible crimes."

Charges were brought in civilian court under a 2000 law allowing the government to charge former soldiers with alleged crimes committed overseas. Green was charged in June 2006, a month after being discharged from the Army with a personality disorder before the military investigated the murders and rape.

The trial started April 27. Jurors deliberated for more than 10 hours beginning Wednesday before finding Green guilty on all 16 counts.

His defense team had asked jurors to consider the "context" of war, saying soldiers in Green's unit of the 101st Airborne Division lacked leadership. Defense attorneys also said the Army missed signs that Green was struggling after the loss of friends in combat and offered little help to him and other members of his unit.

The prosecution rested six days into the trial after presenting witnesses who said Green confessed to the crimes and who put him at the home of the teen, Abeer Qassim al-Janabi, heard him shoot her family and saw him rape and shoot the girl.

During opening statements, federal prosecutor Brian Skaret said Green talked frequently of wanting to kill Iraqis, but when pressed, would tell people he wasn't serious.

Prosecutors told jurors that the plot against the family was hatched among Green and fellow soldiers who were playing cards and drinking whiskey at a checkpoint. Talk turned to having sex with Iraqi women, when one soldier mentioned the al-Janabi family, who lived nearby, Skaret said.

In closing arguments, Ford said the crime was planned and premeditated. "This was a crime that was committed in cold blood," she said.

Three other soldiers are serving time in military prison for their roles in the attack, and testified against Green at his trial.

Associated Press writer Hamid Ahmed in Baghdad contributed to this story.

Hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis flee fighting

MINGORA, Pakistan – Pakistani jets screamed over a Taliban-controlled town Friday and bombed suspected militant positions as hundreds of thousands fled in terror and other trapped residents appealed for a pause in the fighting so they could escape.

The U.N. said half a million people have either already left or are trying to flee the bombings in the northwestern Swat Valley area that followed strong U.S. pressure on nuclear-armed Pakistan to fight back against militants advancing toward the capital as a now-defunct peace deal crumbled.

Pakistan has launched at least a dozen operations in the border region in recent years, but most ended inconclusively and after massive destruction and significant civilian deaths. It remains a haven for al-Qaida and Taliban militants, foreign governments say.

To end one of those protracted offensives, the government signed a peace accord in Swat that provided for Islamic law in the region. But that deal began unraveling last month when Swat Taliban fighters moved into Buner, a neighboring district just 60 miles (100 kilometers) from Islamabad.

Pakistan's prime minister appealed for international assistance late Thursday for the growing refugee crisis and vowed to defeat the militants in the latest operation.

"I appeal to the people of Pakistan to support the government and army at this crucial time," Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said in a television address. "We pledge to eliminate the elements who have destroyed the peace and calm of the nation and wanted to take Pakistan hostage at gunpoint."

The military hailed signs of the public's mood shifting against the Taliban after the militants used the peace deal to regroup and advance.

"The public have seen their real face," Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said. "They realize their agenda goes much beyond Shariah (Islamic) courts. They have a design to expand."

Still, the pro-Western government will face a stiff task to keep a skeptical nation behind its security forces.

The mayor of Mardan, the main district to the south of the fighting, said an estimated 250,000 people had fled in recent days and that more were on the move. Of those, 4,500 were staying in camps, while the rest were with relatives or rented accomodation, he said.

Pakistani officials have said up to 500,000 are expected leave. The exodus from Swat adds to the more than 500,000 already displaced by fighting elsewhere in Pakistan's volatile border region with Afghanistan.

A spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Ron Redmond, said Friday in Geneva that up to 200,000 people have arrived in safe areas in the past few days and that another 300,000 are on the move or are about to flee.

Military operations are taking place in three districts that stretch over some 400 square miles (1,000 square kilometers). Much of the fighting has been in the Swat Valley's main city of Mingora, a militant hub that was home to around 360,000 people before the insurgency two years ago.

Many of those have fled the city, but tens of thousand remain. Some have said the Taliban are not allowing them to leave, perhaps because they want to use them as "human shields" and make the army unwilling to use force.

"We want to leave the city, but we cannot go out because of the fighting," said one resident, Hidayat Ullah. "We will be killed, our children will be killed, our women will be killed and these Taliban will escape."

"Kill terrorists, but don't harm us," he pleaded.

The military says that more than 150 militants and several soldiers have been killed since the offensive began last week. It has not given any figures for civilian deaths, but witness and local media say they have occurred. A hospital in Mardan just south of the battle zone on Thursday was treating 45 civilians with serious gunshot or shrapnel wounds.

Among the youngest patients was Chaman Ara, a 12-year-old girl with shrapnel wedged in her left leg. She said she was wounded last week when a mortar shell hit the truck taking her family and others out of Buner.

She said seven people died, including one of her cousins, and pointed to a nearby bed where the boy's wounded mother lay prone. "We mustn't tell her yet. Please don't tell her," she whispered.

An AP reporter in Mingora who was not identified for security reasons and writer Riaz Khan in Mardan contributed to this report.

US denies 147 civilians killed in Afghan violence

By FISNIK ABRASHI, Associated Press Writer

KABUL – The U.S. military said Friday that reports that as many as 147 civilians died in fighting involving American forces and the Taliban were "extremely over-exaggerated" and said the investigators were still analyzing the data collected at the site.

Officials said preliminary findings of the joint U.S.-Afghan investigation into the deaths in the villages of Ganjabad and Gerani in the western Farah province could be released as early as Friday, but they have yet to schedule an announcement.

Reports of the large number of civilian deaths come at an awkward time for the Obama administration, as the U.S. steps up its military campaign here while emphasizing the importance of nonmilitary efforts to stabilize the country.

A local official said that he collected from residents the names of 147 people killed during fighting on Monday night and Tuesday. If true, it would be the deadliest case of civilian casualties in Afghanistan since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that ousted the Taliban regime.

But the U.S. military described that toll from the fighting as over the top.

"The investigators and the folks on the ground think that those numbers are extremely over-exaggerated," U.S. military spokeswoman Capt. Elizabeth Mathias said. "We are definitely nowhere near those estimates."

Mathias said she could not yet provide estimates of how many people were killed as the team has yet to produce its findings.

Afghan residents say the destruction was from aerial bombing. U.S. officials have suggested that at least some of the deaths were caused by insurgents, whom the military accuses of using civilians as human shields when fighting with its forces.

In a video obtained Friday by Associated Press Television News, villagers are seen wrapping the mangled bodies of some of the victims in blankets and cloths and lining them up on the dusty ground.

In one shot, two children are lifted from a blanket with another adult already in it. The children's faces are blackened, and parts of their tunics are soaked in what appears to be coagulated blood.

Their limp bodies are then put on the ground, wrapped in another cloth and put next to the other bodies. It was not clear how many bodies were in the room where the video was shot.

The man who shot the video said many of the bodies he filmed in the village of Gerani on Tuesday were in pieces. He spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution from security agencies.

It was not possible to independently verify the authenticity of the video.

Investigators on Thursday visited the scene of the violence, where sobbing relatives showed them graves and the demolished buildings where they said the victims had sheltered.

"The joint investigators are back and they are all discussing what they found," Mathias said. "We are still corroborating."

President Barack Obama expressed sympathy over the loss of life in a White House meeting Wednesday with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who contends that such killings undermine support for the fight against resurgent Taliban militants.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, whose two-day visit in Afghanistan was overshadowed by the case, offered a new expression of U.S. regret for the deaths but stopped short of taking blame.

"We regret any, even one, innocent civilian casualty and will make whatever amends are necessary," Gates said Thursday during a visit to the war zone. "We have expressed regret regardless of how this occurred."

Abdul Basir Khan, a member of Farah's provincial council who said he helped the joint delegation from Kabul with their examination Thursday, said he collected names of 147 dead — 55 at one site and 92 at another. Khan said he gave his tally to the Kabul team.

He said villagers told investigators that many of the dead were buried in mass graves of 20 or so people. Investigators did not exhume the bodies, according to Khan.

"They were pointing to graves and saying, 'This is my son, this is my daughter,'" Khan said.

Villagers said they gathered children, women and elderly men in several compounds near the village of Gerani to keep them away from the fighting, but that the compounds were hit by airstrikes. The International Committee of the Red Cross has also said that women and children were among dozens of dead people its teams saw in two villages.

But what happened remained a matter of dispute.

Three U.S. defense officials, speaking anonymously, said Thursday that it is possible the investigators would find a mix of causes for the deaths — that some were caused by the firefight between the Americans and the Taliban, some by the U.S. airstrike and some deliberately killed by Taliban fighters hoping U.S. bombings would be blamed.

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