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Killings of unarmed Iraq youths by Sgt. Barbera's unit didn't reach superior officers, they testify

TACOMA, Wash. — Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael Barbera, accused of killing two unarmed Iraqi teenagers, said Monday he does not kill innocent people.

“I do not kill people for no reason,” Barbera said in the brief, unsworn statement he read into the record in his defense during his Article 32 preliminary hearing. “Never have. Never will.”

Barbera conceded he has made mistakes. He said he has taken “lessons learned” to help himself and others avoid making similar mistakes.

Two superior officers with the Army's 5-73rd Cavalry testified on Monday that they were not told by anyone among then-Staff Sgt. Barbera's Small-Kill Team that he had killed unarmed youths during a reconnaissance mission in March 2007, but they were told that his unit killed two or three military-age insurgents.

“I think that would've stuck out to me,” Nicholas Bajema, then a first lieutenant and Barbera's platoon leader, testified by telephone during the hearing for Barbera at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

“If that (killing of civilians) were to happen, I would have informed Capt. (Jesse) Stewart,” Bajema testified at a different point.

Stewart, now a retired major, testified by phone: “If something like that had happened, I'd have taken action.”

The former officers said they did not learn about the allegations that Barbera killed unarmed civilians until they were interviewed in 2009 by the Army's criminal investigations division. They said they were unaware of any blood payments made to families of three teens.

Barbera, 41, is accused of two counts of premeditated murder and two counts of prejudicial conduct unbecoming in connection with the shooting deaths of Iraqis Ahmad Khalid al-Timmimi, 15, and his brother, Abbas, 14, in a palm grove outside the village of As Sadah, about 50 miles northeast of Baghdad.

Family members and villagers told the Tribune-Review that the boys and their older cousin — fatally shot when Barbera came upon the location where the team fled — were deaf mutes who were not armed. The brothers were tending cattle, family members say, and the cousin was en route to assist them.

Four of the five members of the Small-Kill Team who testified said the brothers were unarmed and did not pose a threat to the unit under rules of engagement when Barbera shot them. The team's medic testified he saw Barbera shoot but did not see the target.

None of the men reported the killings until retired Sgt. Ken Katter did so in 2009. All testified that they were concerned about retribution and about following a chain of command they believed had covered up other incidents. Some worried about the possibility of being “fragged” for reporting a rules of engagement violation.

Stewart said a recon team is supposed to break contact and reposition in order to avoid combat. To engage in lethal force, they would need to make positive identification, and soldiers in the field were expected to yell or wave away intruders and fire a warning shot.

“I would not retaliate against a soldier for reporting a violation of the rules of engagement,” Stewart said.

Several incidents were reported up the chain, and acted upon, Stewart testified.

Stewart noted that Bajema got “a little bit of a reprimand” after Bajema and Barbera threw grenades into an opening in a canal wall during a mission to clear possible insurgents. One grenade went off, blowing the other out the hole, where it exploded. Several soldiers were injured.

Bajema, who retired as a captain and lives in Phoenix, testified he may have radioed the incident as an enemy attack because the blast confused him, but the matter later was properly reported. He denied testimony from Katter that the incident was horseplay gone wrong.

Bajema and Stewart described the canal wall opening as a “spider hole” where the enemy might stash weapons, though Bajema conceded it was bigger than a typical such hole.

Bajema said he ordered someone to clear troops because they were throwing two grenades. He said he did not know someone was making a video of the event and said that was not standard procedure. Videos of the incident are part of the Tribune-Review special investigation, “Rules of Engagement,” which won a national Investigative Reporters and Editors award.

When the smoke cleared and the wounded were tended to, Bajema said he received a verbal castigation in front of his peers and other soldiers from Capt. Johnny Carson and later from Stewart. However, neither Bajema nor Barbera was suspended nor considered for prosecution.

“I can see how that may be the perception,” Stewart said of testimony by several Small-Kill Team members that the matter was kicked under the rug. “But it's not reality.”

Special agent Rick Pilotte of the Army criminal investigations division testified that an uncle of the dead brothers and the father of the third youth shot provided Iraqi passport information that listed the years of birth for his son as 1988 and for the two brothers as 1988 and 1992 — potentially making them as old as 19, 18 and 15 if their birthdays had passed in March 2007.

Other information in the investigative report obtained by the Trib listed different ages. However, the mother of the brothers, described by witnesses as young as 9 or 10, told the Trib at the village through an interpreter that they were ages 14 and 15. The uncle said his son was 15, though witnesses described him as being between late teens and early 20s, to as old as his 30s, because he wore a dishdara usually worn by Iraqi men.

The last member of the Small-Kill team to testify, now Staff Sgt. Kyle L. Roth, said he was sleeping in the palm grove during the mission when gunfire woke him. He did not see who fired, he said, but Barbera was on a knee with his weapon.

jwilhelm@tribweb.com

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