U.S. soldier acquitted in Iraq 'fragging' case

MIAMI, Dec 5 (Reuters) - A U.S. Army National Guard sergeant has been acquitted of killing two superior officers in Iraq after a protracted trial in a case where he faced the death penalty.

A military panel at Fort Bragg, in North Carolina, found Staff Sgt. Alberto Martinez not guilty late on Thursday of two counts of premeditated murder.

Martinez was the first U.S. soldier charged with killing, or "fragging," his commanding officers in the Iraq war.

He was accused of detonating a Claymore mine and three hand grenades to murder company commander Capt. Phillip Esposito and a first lieutenant, Louis Allen, at a base near Tikrit in June 2005.

Investigators originally blamed a mortar attack for the deaths at Forward Operating Base Danger, in a hostile Sunni Arab region north of Baghdad where one of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's palaces was located.

But army prosecutors at Fort Bragg, where Martinez was arraigned in November 2006, later alleged that Martinez had a long and deadly dislike for Esposito, a West Point graduate who hailed from the same New York National Guard unit.

Martinez killed Esposito and Allen, prosecutors said, following repeated issues over his work as a sergeant in charge of supplies.

Martinez, a native of Puerto Rico, was deployed to Iraq in late 2004. He had previously been deployed to New York City after the Sept. 11 attacks on the Word Trade Center and was awarded medals for his service there.

He had repeatedly maintained his innocence and Martinez's family, in a statement released by the public affairs office at Fort Bragg, said it was pleased the military justice system had worked in his favor.

"Our sympathies go out to the families of the victims," the statement said. "This has been a very difficult process for everyone involved and we are happy to be back together again as a family." (Reporting by Tom Brown; Editing by Patricia Zengerle)