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Witness in U.S. Army hearing over Iraq shootings says he kept silent out of fear

By Jonathan Kaminsky

TACOMA, Washington (Reuters) - A former U.S. soldier testifying at the pre-trial hearing of a comrade charged with killing two unarmed Iraqi boys in 2007 said on Friday that he didn't report the killings at the time because he feared retribution and didn't trust his superiors.

Sergeant First Class Michael Barbera, 31, faces two counts of premeditated murder in the evidentiary Article 32 hearing being held at Washington state's Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Former U.S. Army Sergeant Kenneth Katter testified during the proceeding that past experiences shook his confidence in his superior officers, keeping him from reporting the incident.

"I didn't have any faith or trust in their decisions," Katter said. "Who am I going to report it to?"

The shootings occurred in Iraq's Diyala province, when two cow-herding brothers, aged 14 and 15, came upon Barbera's eight-member 82nd Airborne Division unit hidden in a palm grove.

The Army investigated the case after Katter and others came forward two years after the shooting. Barbera was found by investigators to have murdered the boys and lied about it to superiors, an official investigative summary shows.

But commanders at Fort Bragg, where he was based, gave him a reprimand that carried no prison time or loss of rank, the Army said.

On Friday, Katter described an incident preceding the shootings in which Barbera and another serviceman threw two grenades into a hole possibly containing weapons. The first grenade blew the second out of the hole, triggering a blast that wounded several soldiers.

Katter said the incident was hushed up by superiors, in a move that left his confidence in their integrity shattered. He also said he feared Barbera and others would retaliate against him for reporting the shootings.

Eugene Fidell, an expert on military justice at Yale Law School, said cases such as this highlight the need to strip military commanders of the power to determine when to file charges.

"I'm convinced that here, as in the area of sexual offenses, matters would be better all around if the charging power — a quintessentially legal function — were put where it so obviously belongs: with the lawyers," he said by email.

The incident gained notoriety and members of Congress called to have it reopened after the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in 2012 published the accounts of fellow soldiers angered over the outcome.

The Article 32 hearing will determine if enough evidence exists to court-martial Barbera.

Through Friday, five of Barbera's team members testified in the hearing. One said he didn't see the shootings, while the others all said they saw Barbera kill the boys. None said they observed weapons on the boys or thought they posed a threat.

Barbera's attorney David Coombs has sought to establish inconsistencies between witnesses' statements, including where on their bodies the boys were shot, how many rounds were fired and whether the unit came under enemy fire after the killings.

Barbera also faces two counts of conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline.

(Editing by Curtis Skinner & Kim Coghill)

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