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May 12, 2009

U.S. military names suspect in 5 deaths in Iraq

BAGHDAD -- The U.S. military said Tuesday that a 44-year-old Army sergeant near the end of his third tour in Iraq has been charged with fatally shooting five American service members at a U.S. base here Monday.

Sgt. John M. Russell, who is from Sherman, Texas and assigned to the Army’s 54th Engineer Battalion, was charged Tuesday with five counts of premeditated murder and one count of aggravated assault, said Maj. Gen. David Perkins, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq.

The shootings took place at a combat stress clinic at Camp Liberty near Baghdad International Airport at about 2 p.m. Monday. Two of the victims worked at the clinic, Perkins said. Both were officers, one in the Army and one in the Navy. The three other slain service members were enlisted soldiers. Some of the victims' relatives still had not been notified by Tuesday afternoon, Perkins said.

He said that in the days before the shootings Russell had behaved in a way that had prompted his superiors to take away his weapon and recommend he attend counseling at the stress center. The gun Russell is thought to have used Monday wasn't his own, and the military has yet to determine how he may have gotten it, Perkins said.

He said Russell was arrested by military police outside the clinic shortly after the shootings and that he remains in custody at Camp Victory, a U.S. base adjacent to the one where the killings took place. The military said the stress clinic has been closed temporarily because it is considered a crime scene.

Perkins couldn't say whether Russell, a communications specialist, knew any of the victims. His unit is scheduled to leave Iraq in August and has been here about a year, Perkins said. Russell has previously deployed to Bosnia and Kosovo, the military said. Officials couldn’t say how many people witnessed the attack. No one was shot besides the five victims who died. "It's very dramatic and traumatic when we lose our own," Perkins said. "It impacts all of us who wear this uniform."

There have been several incidents since the start of the war in which American soldiers are alleged to have killed comrades, but Monday's appears to be the deadliest. The U.S. military has recognized a growing number of stress-related mental illnesses among soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and many have suggested that repeated combat tours are to blame. Suicide rates among deployed service members have risen considerably in recent years.

Besides a criminal investigation into what happened Monday, Perkins said the military plans to launch an internal review to determine whether it should make changes to its system for providing mental health services to soldiers in Iraq.

"We're looking to see if we can take any steps to reduce the risk of this happening again," he said. Stress clinics, counselors and chaplains are accessible to all deployed service members in Iraq and soldiers can seek help themselves or on the recommendation of a superior. Russell, who lived at Camp Liberty, had been referred to the stress clinic there about a week before the shootings, Perkins said, though he wasn’t sure whether Russell had gone before Monday. He had recently been seen by a counselor in his unit, Perkins said.

"We know that his chain of command had concerns about him,” he said. “He had been undergoing counseling within the command and they had taken the step of taking away his weapon." Perkins said he couldn’t elaborate on what had prompted Russell’s superiors to fear he might pose a threat. The military also wouldn’t disclose whether he was taking any medications.

Maj. Gen. Dan Bolger, the U.S. commander who oversees Baghdad, said the military has increased its efforts in recent years to teach service members to recognize warning signs of mental illness in fellow soldiers and encourage comrades to seek treatment.

"We know that not all injuries are physical. We have to have that door open for our guys,” he said. Even though such steps didn't prevent Monday's deaths, Bolger said the incident shows commanders aren't afraid to take action when they believe a soldier may need help.

"(Russell) is a non-commissioned officer in a leadership capacity, and to make that trip down there, that's a tough decision for his superiors to make," Bolger said. "But we we're willing to make it and we have that care available." Military officials could not say how long Russell has been in the military or whether his family is aware of the charges against him. None of his relatives could be reached for comment Tuesday.

Russell's unit, based in Bamberg, Germany, is part of a division that works primarily in southern Iraq. Perkins said he didn't know what specific duties Russell's unit had been carrying out in recent months, but engineer battalions generally complete tasks such as fixing roads, clearing routes for other soldiers and working on construction projects. The 54th Engineer Battalion's Web site says the unit spent at least some of its most recent deployment searching for roadside bombs.

Perkins said the military is still trying to sort out the chain of events that led up to Monday’s shootings. He said investigators have uncovered conflicting accounts and haven’t determined at what point Russell became separated from his so-called battle buddy. Service members in Iraq are never supposed to leave their living quarters alone.

Several news agencies reported that Russell was disarmed after an argument at the stress clinic Monday morning and that he later grabbed another service member’s weapon and returned to the clinic to open fire. The military wouldn’t confirm those reports.

President Barack Obama has said he was "shocked and deeply saddened" by the shootings. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said Monday’s killings highlight the need to find new ways to reduce the heavy toll of repeated deployments to war zones. Deaths among U.S. soldiers here are rising. Eighteen were killed in Iraq last month, the highest monthly toll since September. With Monday’s attacks, 10 American soldiers have died so far this month.

Also on Tuesday, a suicide car bomber targeted an Iraqi police patrol near the northern city of Kirkuk at about 10.30 a.m. Six policemen were killed and 12 people were injured, police officials said.

Jack Dolan of the Miami Herald contributed to this story.

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