U.S. soldier pleads not guilty to killing Iraqis

BAGHDAD (AP) — A U.S. soldier pleaded not guilty Wednesday to charges of killing Iraqis and trying to cover it up by planting weapons on their bodies.

Spc. Jorge G. Sandoval, of Laredo, Texas, has been charged with premeditated murder, wrongfully placing weapons with the remains of the Iraqis and obstructing justice. He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.

Military prosecutors said the deaths occurred separately between April and June near Iskandariyah, a mostly Sunni Arab city 30 miles south of Baghdad.

The investigation began after military authorities received reports of alleged wrongdoing from fellow soldiers, the Army has said.

Wearing his military uniform, Sandoval stood with his two defense attorney to enter his not guilty plea during the opening day of a court-martial on a U.S. base west of Baghdad.

Also charged in the case are Sgt. Evan Vela of Rigby, Idaho, and Staff Sgt. Michael Hensley of Candler, North Carolina. They are part of the Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, based at Fort Richardson, Alaska.

Sandoval was arrested in June while on a two-week leave visiting his family.

Vala's defense attorney, Gary Myers, claimed earlier this week that Army snipers hunting insurgents in Iraq were under orders to "bait" their targets with suspicious materials, such as detonation cords, then kill whoever picked up the items. He said his client was acting "pursuant to orders."

The Army has declined to confirm such a program exists.

The Iraq war has seen U.S. service members face prosecution in several high-profile incidents, including abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison, the killings of 24 civilians by Marines in Haditha and the rape and killing of a 14-year-old girl and the slaying of her family south of Baghdad

Iraqis often accuse American soldiers of unnecessary killings or abuse, fueling a level of resentment toward U.S. forces.