For more than a month after the killings, Sgt. Lemuel Lemus stuck to his story.
“Proper escalation of force was used,” he told an investigator, describing how members of his unit shot and killed three Iraqi prisoners who had lashed out at their captors and tried to escape after a raid northwest of Baghdad on May 9.
Then, on June 15, Sergeant Lemus offered a new and much darker account.
In a lengthy sworn statement, he said he had witnessed a deliberate plot by his fellow soldiers to kill the three handcuffed Iraqis and a cover-up in which one soldier cut another to bolster their story. The squad leader threatened to kill anyone who talked. Later, one guilt-stricken soldier complained of nightmares and “couldn’t stop talking” about what happened, Sergeant Lemus said.
As with similar cases being investigated in Iraq, Sergeant Lemus’s narrative has raised questions about the rules under which American troops operate and the possible culpability of commanders. Four soldiers have been charged with premeditated murder in the case. Lawyers for two of them, who dispute Sergeant Lemus’s account, say the soldiers were given an order by a decorated colonel on the day in question to “kill all military-age men” they encountered.