Unidentified Iraqi witnesses testified yesterday at a US military court to determine if five US soldiers should be court-martialed in the alleged rape-slaying of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl.
Three of the girl's relatives also were killed in the town of Mahmoudiya on March 12, which is among the worst incidents in a series of cases alleging US troops killed or abused Iraqi civilians.
The hearing began yesterday with testimony by unidentified Iraqi witnesses behind closed doors.
The media and public were barred from covering the Iraqis after an appeal by the trial counsel to protect the witnesses, who could be at risk if they are seen as collaborating with the Americans.
The soldiers -- Sergeant Paul Cortez, Specialist James Barker, Private First Class Jesse Spielman and Private First Class Bryan Howard -- are charged with conspiring to rape the girl along with former private first class Steven Green, who was arrested in North Carolina in June. Green has pleaded not guilty in federal court and is being held without bond.
A fifth soldier from the same unit, Sergeant Anthony Yribe, is charged with failing to report the attack but is not alleged to have been a direct participant.
It was not clear how many Iraqis would testify and when non-Iraqi witnesses would be called during the Article 32 hearing, the military equivalent of a grand jury proceeding.
The hearing will decide whether there is enough evidence to convene a court-martial for the five soldiers.
It is the fifth such investigation against US soldiers in Iraq, including a group of Marines accused of killing 24 people at Haditha last November.
US officials are concerned the case will strain relations with Iraq's new government if Iraqis perceive the soldiers receive lenient treatment. The case has already increased demands for changes in an agreement that exempts US soldiers from prosecution in Iraqi courts.
US officials have assured Iraqis that the case will be pursued vigorously and that the soldiers will be punished if convicted.
According to an FBI affidavit, the soldiers drank alcohol before abandoning their checkpoint, changed clothes and headed to the victims' house, about 200m from a US military checkpoint in a Sunni Arab area south of Baghdad. The soldiers are also accused of setting fire to the girl's body to destroy evidence.
Iraqi authorities identified the rape victim as Abeer Qassim Hamza. The other victims were her father, Qassim Hamza; her mother, Fikhriya Taha; and her sister, Hadeel Qassim Hamza.
David Sheldon, the Washington-based attorney of Barker, has said the stressful environment in the Mahmoudiya area -- known in Iraq as the ``Triangle of Death'' -- contributed to the soldiers' behavior.