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By Michael Muskal, Los Angeles Times

A U.S. soldier faces a preliminary hearing Wednesday on charges he unlawfully killed two unarmed teenagers in an Iraqi battle zone.

Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael Barbera has been charged with several counts, including premeditated murder, and faces a mandatory life sentence if convicted of the killings. The preliminary hearing, known in military parlance as an Article 32 proceeding, is being held at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state.

The Army has been reluctant to comment on the case, which was pushed into the limelight in 2012 by an investigative report by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in which soldiers who served with Barbera said they were troubled that no legal action had been taken after the shootings.

Barbera was an Army paratrooper in March 2007, leading a Small Kill team on a reconnaissance mission outside the village of Asada in rural Iraq, 50 miles from the capital, Baghdad. Barbera and his team established a camp in a palm grove overlooking what they thought was a safe house used by insurgents who had been known to use boys as combatants.

The next day two boys were driving cattle toward the unseen soldiers, according to the reports of the incident. Barbera stood up and allegedly opened fire on the boys, who were later found to be deaf. They were identified as Ahmed Khalid Timmimi, 15, and his brother, Abbas, 14.

Some soldiers complained about the shootings, but no action was taken in the field.

Even after Army criminal investigators at Fort Bragg, N.C., recommended that Barbera be charged with murder and lying to officials about what happened, generals at the 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg chose not to put him on trial. Instead, they gave Barbera a reprimand, promoted him to sergeant 1st class and placed him in charge of a larger unit at Alaska’s Fort Richardson.

The Tribune-Review published its investigative report, “Rules of Engagement,” about the killings and the aftermath in December 2012. The Department of Defense reopened the case in response to demands from members of Congress who read the report, which won multiple journalism awards.

Barbera is also charged with falsely telling superiors the Small Kill team came under insurgent attack and for allegedly making a threatening cellphone call to the wife of Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine.

AFP Photo/Noorullah Shirzada

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