NEW YORK - Four American soldiers accused of raping an Iraqi girl in March and killing members of her family are facing a court martial that could result in death sentences for all of them.
Col Dwight Warren, a special army investigator, said that after preliminary hearings last month, "reasonable grounds exist to believe that each accused committed the offence for which he is charged", including premeditated murder, punishable under military law by death.
The recommendation came just days after another army investigator recommended that four other soldiers accused of killing three Iraqi detainees during a raid at a chemical complex on an island north of Baghdad in May should be considered for the death penalty in their court martial.
This latest case has attracted attention because of the degree of brutality that is alleged.
Prosecutors assert that the four men raped the teenage girl then killed her, her parents and her seven-year-old sister in the family's home in Mahmudiya, in what is known as the triangle of death, because of the many attacks there by Sunni insurgents.
Specialist James Barker, Pte Jesse Spielman, Pte Bryan Howard and Sgt Paul Cortez, all members of the 502nd Infantry, 101st Airborne Division, are charged with rape and premeditated murder.
They are also charged with arson after prosecutors alleged they doused the body of the rape victim with kerosene and set it on fire.
The US military has been struggling to contain the damage from a series of cases involving alleged acts of violence by soldiers against Iraqi civilians.
Among them is the investigation into allegations that US marines killed 24 civilians in Haditha last year.
For the military to be moved to recommend execution for its own soldiers is extremely rare.
The last American soldier to be executed was hanged at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas in 1961 after being found guilty of the rape and attempted murder of an Austrian girl.
A military panel must consider whether to accept Col Warren's recommendations and to convene a court martial. The four men are meanwhile being held at a prison in Kuwait.
A fifth soldier, Sgt Anthony Yribie, has been charged with dereliction of duty for failing to report the crime.
The most important issue in any court martial will be whether the rape and murders were premeditated.
David Sheldon, the civilian lawyer for Specialist Barker, is already contending that there were mitigating circumstances.
"For 22 days, these junior enlisted soldiers were warehoused at one of the most dangerous checkpoints in the triangle of death," he told The New York Times.
The case also involves another soldier, Steven Green.
Prosecutors believe he conceived a plan to rape the girl, whom the soldiers had seen while on patrol, and to kill her and her family.
After psychological evaluation, Mr Green was discharged and is currently in custody in Kentucky.
A soldier who testified at last month's hearings said he had heard Mr Green talk about killing civilians.
Pte Justin Watt said he heard Mr Green say openly: "I want to kill and hurt a lot of Iraqis."
- INDEPENDENTBy David Usborne