BAGHDAD – A U.S. Army sergeant who was due to leave Iraq soon after multiple tours has been charged with murder and aggravated assault in the fatal shooting of five fellow soldiers at a U.S. military counseling clinic in Baghdad, a U.S. official said Tuesday.
Sgt. John M. Russell of the 54th Engineering Battalion based in Bamberg, Germany was charged with five counts of murder and one count of aggravated assault in Monday’s shooting, Maj. Gen. David Perkins told reporters.
It was the deadliest case of soldier-on-soldier violence since the Iraq war began in 2003 and has drawn attention to the issue of combat stress and frequent deployments to battle zones.
Russell was taken into custody by military police outside the clinic following the shooting at Camp Liberty, Perkins said.
Perkins said two of the dead were officers — doctors from the Army and Navy — and the others were enlisted personnel seeking treatment at the clinic. He did not identify the victims by name.
He said a probe has also begun into whether the Army has enough mental health facilities in Iraq to care for stress cases.
The U.S. military is coping with a growing number of stress cases among soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan — many of whom are on their third or fourth combat tours. Some studies suggest that about 15 percent of soldiers returning from Iraq suffer from some sort of emotional problems.
Perkins gave few details of the shooting since the investigation is ongoing and added that there were conflicting accounts of what happened.
He said the alleged assailant had been referred to the clinic by his superiors, presumably because of concern over his mental state. Perkins said Russell was “probably” on his third tour of Iraq but was due to leave soon.
Perkins said the assailant’s weapon had been taken away, but somehow he got a new weapon, entered the clinic and opened fire.
In Washington, a Pentagon official said the alleged assailant had been escorted to the clinic, but once inside got into an argument with the staff and was asked to leave. After he and his escort drove away, Russell allegedly took control of the escort’s weapon and returned to the clinic, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigation was ongoing.
President Barack Obama, who visited an adjacent base last month, said in a statement that he was “shocked and deeply saddened” by the report.
At the Pentagon, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the shooting occurred “in a place where individuals were seeking help.”
“It does speak to me about the need for us to redouble our efforts in terms of dealing with the stress,” Mullen said.
Violence has dropped sharply in Iraq since the high point in 2007, but attacks continue, especially in the north.
Also Tuesday, a suicide bomber rammed his car into an Iraqi police truck in the northern city of Kirkuk, killing five policemen and a civilian.
Kirkuk is the center of Iraq’s oil production in the north and is contested between its Kurdish, Turkomen and Arab populations.