BAGHDAD — A U.S. Army sniper was cleared of murder charges Thursday in a case that drew attention to allegations of a classified military program in which American sharpshooters targeted people who tried to pick up weapons materials planted by the troops.
The court-martial panel cleared Staff Sgt. Michael A. Hensley of three counts of murder and also of charges that he made false statements to investigators. However, he was found guilty of placing an AK-47 assault rifle on an Iraqi man killed May 11 by a fellow soldier south of Baghdad. Hensley also was convicted on two counts of insubordination for walking away from and cursing at an officer.
He faces sentencing today.
Hearings into the shootings gave a glimpse of the pressure that U.S. soldiers say they felt from commanders as they fought Shiite Muslim militants and the Sunni insurgent group Al Qaeda in Iraq.
Hensley, who won a 2002 Army-wide sniper competition, was brought in this spring to head the sniper section of the 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, in the area around Iskandariya, south of Baghdad.
According to testimony from soldiers, the Army introduced a "baiting" program to selected platoon members before Hensley arrived in March. Officers from the Pentagon's Asymmetrical Warfare Group visited the team in January and proposed luring insurgents by planting weapons, platoon Lt. Matthew Didier said in a sworn statement in June. A few days later, the battalion's operations officer approved the tactic, Didier said.
U.S. military officers in Baghdad have denied the existence of any such baiting program. Senior officials in Washington have insisted whatever classified programs did exist, none authorized killing Iraqi nationals and placing weapons by the bodies.
Hensley's section came under investigation in June after two members told the Army's Criminal Investigation Division that some of the platoon's snipers were shooting people and then planting weapons near the bodies. The informants also described how unit members went around carrying a white bait box, according to court documents.
Defense attorneys told a judge this summer that the baiting allegation was crucial to their case. But despite the apparent prominence of the issue, the court barred most classified material from the trial.
Two of the premeditated-murder charges against Hensley stemmed from incidents on April 14 and April 27. In one case, he fired at an Iraqi outside a house. In the other, he ordered one of the unit's snipers, then-Spc. Jorge G. Sandoval Jr., to fire on a man in a field who had been cutting grass. In both cases, his lawyers argued that the snipers felt a plausible threat and the targets were probably insurgents.
In the May 11 case, an Iraqi man stumbled upon the snipers' camp and was shot by Hensley's deputy, Sgt. Evan Vela.
At the court-martial of Sandoval in September, Vela testified that at Hensley's instruction he had fired two bullets into the Iraqi's head.
That testimony helped clear Sandoval of murder charges in the April 27 and May 11 incidents, but was not admissible in Hensley's court-martial or Vela's own upcoming proceedings.
On Wednesday, testifying at Hensley's trial, Vela told the court that he now remembers little about the May 11 shooting.
There was no explanation of why Vela changed his account. His attorneys have said he is suffering from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. His own pretrial hearings are to begin over the weekend.
In other developments in Iraq on Thursday, the police chief in the Shiite shrine city of Karbala accused cleric Muqtada Sadr's Mahdi Army militia of being responsible for the killings of hundreds of people since 2003. Brig. Shakir Shawkat said the militia had killed 600 people in 2004.
Clashes in late August in Karbala between the Mahdi Army and a rival Shiite militia, the Badr Organization, left at least 50 people dead. The Mahdi Army was widely accused of starting the confrontation.
Also Thursday, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki accepted the resignation of members of the main Sunni political bloc from his government. The bloc's six ministers had left the government in early August.
Maliki originally hoped they would return but has now fired them, government spokesman Ali Dabbagh said. Maliki is considering appointing replacements with links to the Anbar Salvation Front, the association of Sunni tribesmen who have helped U.S. and Iraqi forces rout insurgents in Anbar province.
Maliki also attended the release of 500 detainees Thursday from the U.S.-run detention facility Camp Cropper near Baghdad's international airport. The Americans have more than 20,000 detainees in Iraq.
Two U.S. soldiers were killed Wednesday in roadside bombings, one in the capital and another south of Baghdad, the U.S. military said.
The deaths brought to 3,859 the American toll since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, according to icasualties.org.
Times staff writers Saif Hameed and Said Rifai contributed to this report.