Third U.S. soldier charged in Iraq murder probe

BAGHDAD Mon Jul 2, 2007 8:35am EDT

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The U.S. military said on Monday it had charged a U.S. soldier with the murder of an Iraqi and of trying to cover up the crime by placing a weapon by the body.

The charge is linked to an investigation into the unlawful killing of three Iraqis in separate incidents during U.S. operations between April and June near the town of Iskandariyah, 40 km (25 miles) south of Baghdad, the military said in a statement. Two other soldiers have been charged separately.

Sergeant Evan Vela, from Phoenix, Idaho, was charged with one count of premeditated murder, wrongfully placing a weapon beside a dead Iraqi, making a false official statement and obstruction of justice.

The statement said the charges were merely an accusation of wrongdoing and that the soldier was presumed innocent until proven guilty.

Murder charges were announced on Saturday for Staff Sergeant Michael Hensley and Specialist Jorge Sandoval, stemming from complaints made by other U.S. soldiers to the authorities.

The three men all served in the 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, based at Fort Richardson, Alaska.

The charges are the latest to be leveled at U.S. forces serving in Iraq that include the killing of 24 unarmed Iraqis in 2005 by U.S. Marines in the town of Haditha, and the rape and murder of a 14-year old girl in Mahmudiya in March 2006.

Incidents of American soldiers illegally killing Iraqis since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 have incensed Iraqi public opinion and added to calls for a withdrawal of U.S. troops.

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