US soldier charged with killing officers faces death penalty

A US National Guard soldier is facing a possible death sentence for allegedly killing two of his senior officers at a military base near Tikrit in what is believed to be the first recorded case of "fragging" in Iraq.

A US National Guard soldier is facing a possible death sentence for allegedly killing two of his senior officers at a military base near Tikrit in what is believed to be the first recorded case of "fragging" in Iraq.

At a hearing in Kuwait, Colonel Patrick Reinert said he found "reasonable cause" to believe that Staff Sergeant Alberto Martinez, 39, of Troy, New York State, used an anti-personnel mine and three grenades to kill a captain and a lieutenant in a "personal vendetta". The investigating officer, who recommended that the soldier face a court martial, said he had also found aggravating factors which could allow for capital punishment.

Captain Philip Esposito, 30, and Lieutenant Louis Allen, 34, died after an explosion ripped through an office where they were working inside one of Saddam Hussein's palaces in Tikrit. Their deaths were initially thought to be the result of "indirect fire" - a mortar round that struck a window on the side of the building. But an explosives expert told the hearing that the blast was caused by a Claymore anti-personnel mine and possibly three grenades. A medical officer said the men's injuries were not consistent with wounds caused by a mortar or a rocket.

Capt Esposito is said to have relieved Sgt Martinez of his duties. One witness, Captain Carl Prober, said Sgt Martinez told him twice that he hated Esposito - once in September 2004 and again in May. In the second instance, Sgt Martinez said: "I hate [Esposito] and I'm going to frag [him]" Capt Prober testified, a reference to a Vietnam war term for soldiers who killed their superiors.

The aggravating factors include the fact the crime was committed at a time when US forces were "clearly engaged in active hostilities" in Iraq. Lawyers for Sgt Martinez, who is being held in a military jail in Kuwait, argued that there was no real evidence against their client.

Another US sergeant, Hasan Akbar, was convicted in April of murdering two officers by rolling grenades into their tents and opening fire while they were in Kuwait on the eve of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Akbar has since been sentenced to death, the first US soldier convicted of murdering a colleague in war since Vietnam. Eighty-two Americans were killed in 600 "fraggings" from 1969 to 1971, according to US army figures.


Jamie Wilson in Washington

The GuardianTramp

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