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Iraqis, US Offer Different Accounts of Desert Deaths - 2004-05-19

U.S. military officials say more than 40 Iraqis may have been killed in a firefight in the desert of western Iraq, but there are conflicting accounts about whether those killed were insurgents or civilians attending a wedding party. Meanwhile, in Baghdad, an American soldier who pleaded guilty to abusing Iraqi detainees has been sentenced to a year in prison and will be discharged from the Army. He is the first soldier to be convicted in connection with the scandal.

This first court martial ended just after three hours with tearful, 24 year old Army reservist Jeremy Sivits apologizing and telling the military court how he saw American soldiers punch an Iraqi in the head and stomp on the hands and feet of others.

Reporters, including VOA's Alisha Ryu, were allowed into the makeshift courtroom in Baghdad's convention center, in what was the first of at least seven military trials for those involved in abusing and humiliating Iraqi prisoners and then taking pictures of them.

?The [Sivits] plea was part of a deal to receive leniency in exchange for his testimony against six other soldiers who are believed to have played much bigger roles in the abuse scandal,? said Alisha Ryu.

The court martial was open to reporters, but no cameras were allowed inside.

This Baghdad resident expressed skepticism about the trial.

Why, this Iraqi asked, was this trial conducted under American law and by the U.S. military when the crimes were committed against Iraqis and on Iraqi soil?

Sivits was tried by a U.S. military court on charges stemming from the abusive treatment of prisoners, which is illegal under U.S. military law.

In Washington, Republican Senator John Warner told a Senate hearing the Pentagon has found more pictures of abuse at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. In congressional testimony Wednesday, the top American general responsible for the Middle East, John Abizaid, said the prison had many problems. ?From evidence already gathered, we believe that systemic problems existed at the prison that may have contributed to events there,? he said.

He acknowledged prisoners detained by the U.S. military in Afghanistan were also abused, all of which are part of Pentagon investigations that could result in more criminal charges being filed.

Also In Iraq, residents of a remote area near the country's border with Syria grieve over what they say were the deaths at least of 40 people, killed, they say, when a U.S. helicopter fired on a wedding party where celebrants were shooting weapons into the air. In Washington, a Defense Department official denies anyone at a wedding was targeted. Instead, a statement released by the U.S. command in Baghdad says coalition forces came under hostile fire while conducting a military operation against a suspected safe house used by foreign fighters near the Syrian border. There, they say they seized Iraqi and Syrian cash, foreign passports and weapons.

Two years ago, a wedding party in Afghanistan was the target of a deadly American air strike. After an investigation, the U.S. military said that strike was justified because American aircraft had come under fire first.