American soldier charged in Iraq killings of deaf, unarmed teens
An Army small-kill team leader is charged by military investigators with two counts of murder in the fatal shootings of two deaf, unarmed Iraqi youths in March 2007, an incident first made public in a Tribune-Review investigative report last year.
Then-Staff Sgt. Michael Barbera is accused of killing Ahmad Khalid al-Timmimi, 15, and his brother Abbas, 14, as they tended to cattle in a palm grove near As Sadah, an Iraqi village about 50 miles northeast of Baghdad.
Barbera, 31, who was later promoted to sergeant first class, also is charged with lying to his commanders, directing fellow soldiers to lie to military investigators and making a threatening phone call to a civilian in an effort to keep what happened from becoming public. He was charged on Wednesday at Alaska's Fort Richardson and is in the process of being flown to Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, where he will undergo a formal arraignment — called an Article 32 hearing in the military.
Defense attorneys at Lewis-McChord could not comment on the charges, which were confirmed by military officials and Maj. Barbara Junius, an Army spokeswoman. No date has been scheduled for Barbera's hearing, but it likely will convene early next year.
The killings of the two Iraqi youths were the subject of a special Trib investigative report, “Rules of Engagement,” published in December. The eight-page special section, which won a national Investigative Reporters and Editors Award and other honors, can be found online with an interactive map.
Barbera was a small-kill team leader in Charlie Troop, 5th Squadron of the 73rd Airborne Reconnaissance Regiment out of Fort Bragg, N.C., engaged in counterinsurgency operations in Iraq's restive Diyala province when the killings occurred. Several of the cavalry scouts on the mission said Barbera killed the brothers and then lied to his commanders about how the boys died, a moral wound of war that they could not accept.
“None of us feel good about this. But I'm glad that the Army is doing the right thing,” said Ken Katter, 46, of Saginaw, Mich., the sniper assigned to Barbera's team.
Katter was among the unit whistle-blowers who brought the case to the Army, in part because they believed then that the boys' deaths led to two truck bomb attacks on their forward outpost in As Sadah in the weeks after. Ten soldiers with the 82nd Airborne were killed in the attacks — the division's worst loss since the Vietnam War.
A former Marine and police officer in Michigan who rejoined the military because of 9/11, Katter was later medically retired from the Army because of wounds he suffered from a roadside bomb. He and others in the team said they faced reprisals from fellow soldiers for coming forward against Barbera.
Documents obtained by the Trib show investigators and prosecutors with the Army's Criminal Investigation Command who originally reviewed the allegations recommended Barbera be charged with two counts of murder and other charges. Such charges never made it to an Article 32 hearing.
According to the investigative report provided to the Trib, Barbera instead received a light reprimand from Fort Bragg leaders and was promoted before he shipped to Fort Richardson. New commanders there were not informed of squad members' concerns about Barbera's actions in Iraq until contacted by the Trib.
Katter and other soldiers in the team alleged that high-ranking officers and senior noncommissioned officers at Fort Bragg at that time covered up the killings by disregarding the recommendation of charges.
The scouts contend higher-ups were more concerned about their careers and the honor of the 82nd Airborne, which was presented with a prestigious Presidential Unit Citation for its service in Iraq.
“All we ever asked was for someone to listen to us and give what we were concerned about — a fair hearing,” Katter said.
After the Trib's investigative report was published, Sen. Carl Levin, the powerful Michigan Democrat who chairs the Armed Services Committee, requested the Army reopen an investigation into the As Sadah slayings. Echoing the earlier Army findings and the Trib's story, the second probe likewise recommended two murder charges and an obstruction of justice charge.
In addition, Barbera is charged with communicating a threat for allegedly making a call from his cellphone to the wife of a Trib reporter, threatening harm to keep the story from coming out.
When Barbera's Article 32 hearing is convened, it will be the latest high-profile military criminal case at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
In the past three years, prosecutors there have won convictions against a string of accused war criminals, including Robert Bales, who murdered 16 Afghan villagers; John Russell, who shot to death five soldiers at a mental health clinic in Iraq; and Calvin Gibbs, the leader of another small-kill team in Afghanistan that murdered innocent Afghans and covered up the rampage.
Carl Prine is a staff writer and Jim Wilhelm is investigations editor for Trib Total Media. Prine can be reached at 412-320-7826 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Wilhelm can be reached at 412-320-7894 or email@example.com.