BAGHDAD — An American Army sergeant shot and killed five fellow soldiers after an altercation at a counseling center on a military base in Iraq Monday, officials said. The attack drew attention to the issues of combat stress and morale among soldiers serving multiple combat tours over six years of war.
The suspect had been disarmed after an earlier incident at the center but returned with another weapon, according to a senior military official in Washington, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the shootings were still being investigated.
Attacks on fellow soldiers, known as fraggings, were not uncommon during the Vietnam war but are thought to be rare in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A brief U.S. military statement said the assailant was arrested after the 2 p.m. shooting at Camp Liberty, a sprawling U.S. base on the western edge of Baghdad near the city's international airport.
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President Barack Obama, who visited a neighboring base last month, said in a statement that he was "shocked and deeply saddened" by the report, and that "my heart goes out to the families and friends" of all those involved "in this horrible tragedy."
After a meeting with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Obama said he would make sure "that we fully understand what led to this tragedy" and will do everything possible "to ensure that our men and women in uniform are protected as they serve our country so capably and courageously in harm's way."
The military statement in Baghdad said nobody else was hurt, but military officials in Washington said one person was wounded. The names of the victims and shooter were not released.
Pentagon officials said the shooting happened at a stress clinic, where troops can go for help with the stresses of combat or personal issues. Soldiers routinely carry weapons on Camp Liberty and other bases, but they are supposed to be unloaded.
The military official said that the sergeant had been involved in a verbal altercation at the center. His service weapon was taken from him for his own protection, and he was driven back to the center later in the day.
The official said that when the sergeant returned, he had another weapon. It was unclear whether he was returning under orders or of his own volition.
Another senior military official said the shooter was a patient at the clinic. The official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity because of the investigation, did not know what relationship the shooter had to those he allegedly killed. It was unclear whether the victims were workers at the clinic or were there for counseling.
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.
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 problem.
Rep. Harry Mitchell, a member of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, said the Camp Liberty shooting underscores the "critical need" to reach out to soldiers "suffering from the effects of combat stress and post-traumatic stress disorder."