BAGHDAD, (AP) – Two U.S. Army soldiers have been charged with the premeditated murder of an Iraqi, and a lieutenant colonel has been relieved of command in connection with the case, the U.S. military announced Thursday.
Sgt. 1st Class Trey A. Corrales, of San Antonio and Spc. Christopher P. Shore of Winder, Ga., were charged with one count of murder in the death, which allegedly occurred June 23 near the northern city of Kirkuk, the U.S. said in a statement.
Meanwhile, four U.S. soldiers and their Iraqi interpreter were killed when a roadside bomb exploded near their patrol in east Baghdad. The blast occurred Wednesday during operations to disrupt the flow of explosives into the capital, the U.S. military said.
The soldiers charged with the premeditated murder of an Iraqi are assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry Regiment, which is part of the 25th Infantry Division based in Hawaii. The unit is attached to Multinational Division – North.
The battalion commander, Lt. Col. Michael Browder, was relieved of his command in connection with the investigation although he is not a suspect and has not been charged, the military said.
No further details were released, but the statement noted that the charges are allegations and neither of the two soldiers has been convicted.
Elsewhere, U.S. authorities said American and Iraqi forces were continuing operations to clear Sunni extremists from the eastern part of Baqouba, 35 miles north of Baghdad.
U.S. troops regained control of the western half of the city last month and launched operations into the rest of Baqouba last Tuesday.
Since last month, the Americans said they have killed at least 67 al-Qaeda operatives in Baqouba, arrested 253, seized 63 weapons caches and have destroyed 151 roadside bombs.
On Wednesday, the U.S. command announced the arrest of an al-Qaeda leader it said served as the link between the organization’s command in Iraq and Osama bin Laden’s inner circle, enabling it to wield considerable influence over the Iraqi group.
The announcement was made as the White House steps up efforts to link the war in Iraq to the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, with a growing number of Americans opposing the Iraq conflict. Some independent analysts question the extent of al-Qaeda’s role in Iraq.
Khaled Abdul-Fattah Dawoud Mahmoud al-Mashhadani was the highest-ranking Iraqi in the al-Qaida in Iraq leadership when he was captured July 4 in Mosul, U.S. military spokesman Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner said.
Bergner told reporters that al-Mashhadani carried messages from bin Laden, and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahri, to the Egyptian-born head of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Ayyub al-Masri.
“There is a clear connection between al-Qaeda in Iraq and al-Qaeda senior leadership outside Iraq,” Bergner said.
He said al-Mashhadani had told interrogators that al-Qaeda’s global leadership provides “directions, they continue to provide a focus for operations” and “they continue to flow foreign fighters into Iraq, foreign terrorists.”
The relationship between bin Laden and the al-Qaeda in Iraq leadership has long been the subject of debate. Some private analysts believe the foreign-based leadership plays a minor role in day-to-day operations.
Analysts also have questioned U.S. military assertions that al-Qaeda in Iraq is the main threat to U.S. forces here.
Former Pentagon analyst Anthony Cordesman quoted a background brief by U.S. military experts in Iraq this month that said al-Qaeda in Iraq was responsible for only 15 percent of the attacks here in the first half of 2007.
White House spokesman Tony Snow told reporters Wednesday that he didn’t know why news of al-Mashhadani’s arrest was withheld for two weeks. He dismissed a suggestion that the timing was linked to the Senate debate over withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq was proclaimed in 2004 by Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He led a group called Tawhid and Jihad, responsible for the beheading of several foreign hostages, whose final moments were captured on videotapes provided to Arab television stations.
Al-Zarqawi posted Web statements declaring his allegiance to bin Laden and began using the name of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Al-Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Diyala province in June 2006 and was replaced by al-Masri.
Although al-Qaeda in Iraq’s rank-and-file are mostly Iraqis, the Iraqi group’s top leadership is dominated by foreigners, Bergner said. That includes al-Masri, who joined an al-Qaeda forerunner in Egypt in the 1980s and later helped train fighters who drove the Soviet army from Afghanistan.
Pointing to the foreign influence within al-Qaeda in Iraq could undermine support for the organization among nationalistically minded Iraqis, including some in insurgent groups that have broken with al-Qaeda.