An Army officer was arraigned Friday on charges of dereliction of duty and assault with intent to commit murder in the killing of a critically wounded Iraqi, a military spokesman said.
Capt. Rogelio Maynulet, whose fellow officers say he shot the man to end his suffering, did not enter a plea at the hearing in Wiesbaden, Germany. The charges carry a maximum combined sentence of 20 1/2 years, said Maj. Michael Indovina.
The 29-year-old from Chicago told The Associated Press that he's been overwhelmed with support, including a Web site petition that has more than 400 signatures.
"I probably can't say the same for family and friends, I feel bad that they have had to go through this all, but I'm doing fine," Maynulet said in a telephone interview following his arraignment. "The support I'm getting from other members of the military is incredible."
Maynulet's court-martial was set for Feb. 22-25.
The charges stem from a May 21 incident when Maynulet was leading his tank company on a patrol near the city of Kufa, south of Baghdad, where heavy fighting had been reported.
They encountered a sedan thought to be carrying a driver for al-Sadr and another militiaman loyal to the cleric, whose supporters rose up against U.S. forces twice this year.
U.S. soldiers chased the vehicle and fired at it, wounding both the driver and passenger.
When a medic pulled the driver out of the car, it was clear he had suffered critical injuries, with part of his skull blown away, according to testimony heard during Maynulet's Article 32 hearing _ the military's equivalent of a civilian grand jury investigation.
Maynulet's fellow officer, 1st Lt. Colin Cremin, testified that Maynulet told him he then shot the Iraqi in the base of the neck or the back of the head.
"It was something he didn't want to do, but it was the compassionate response," Cremin testified. "It was definitely the humane response."
The military has only referred to the driver as an "unidentified paramilitary member," but relatives named him as Karim Hassan, 36. The family does not dispute that he was working for al-Sadr.
Maynulet would not comment on the facts of the case, but his attorney, Capt. Will Helixon, said: "He maintains that his actions were justified."
Maynulet was initially charged with murder, which carries a mandatory life sentence, but Maj. Gen. Martin Dempsey referred the matter to court-martial on the lesser charges after reviewing the evidence presented at the Article 32 hearing.
Human rights groups have condemned the illegal killings of Iraqis _ either civilians or wounded fighters _ by the U.S. military, saying such acts amount to violations of international humanitarian rights and should be dealt with as war crimes.
On Dec. 10, Staff Sgt. Johnny M. Horne Jr., 30, of Winston-Salem, N.C., pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years in prison for killing a severely wounded Iraqi teenager in what investigators say may have been a mercy killing.
He was sentenced to three years in prison. Horne was the first of four soldiers from Company C, 1st Battalion, 41st Infantry Regiment, based in Fort Riley, Kan., to face court-martial on charges of murdering Iraqis during fighting in Baghdad's impoverished Sadr City in August.