SEATTLE -- The U.S. Army said yesterday it will seek the death penalty against the soldier accused of killing 16 Afghan villagers in a predawn rampage in March, a decision his lawyer called "totally irresponsible."

The announcement followed a pretrial hearing last month for Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, 39, who faces premeditated murder and other charges in the attack on two villages in southern Afghanistan.

The slayings drew such angry protests that the United States temporarily halted combat operations in Afghanistan, and it was three weeks before American investigators could reach the crime scenes.

Prosecutors said Bales left his remote southern Afghanistan base early on March 11, attacked one village, returned to base, then slipped away again to attack another nearby compound. Of the 16 people killed, nine were children.

No date has been set for the court-martial, which will be held at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, south of Seattle.

Bales' civilian lawyer, John Henry Browne, told The Associated Press he met with Army officials last week to argue that his client shouldn't face the possibility of the death penalty, given that he was on his fourth deployment in a war zone at the time.

"The Army is not taking responsibility for Sgt. Bales and other soldiers that the Army knowingly sends into combat situations with diagnosed PTSD, concussive head injuries and other injuries," Browne said. "The Army is trying to take the focus off the failure of its decisions, and the failure of the war itself, and making Sgt. Bales out to be a rogue soldier."

Bales' wife, Kari Bales, said in a statement she and their children have been enjoying their weekend visits with Bales at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, and she hopes he receives an impartial trial.

"I no longer know if a fair trial for Bob is possible, but it very much is my hope, and I will have faith," she said.

Outside experts have said a key issue going forward will be to determine whether Bales suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Bales grew up in the Cincinnati suburb of Norwood, Ohio, and served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

During last month's preliminary hearing, prosecutors built a strong eyewitness case against the veteran soldier, with troops recounting seeing Bales return to the base, covered in blood. One soldier testified that Bales woke him up in the middle of the night, saying he had just shot people at one village and he was heading out again to attack another. The soldier said he didn't believe Bales and went back to sleep.

Afghan witnesses questioned via a video link from a forward operating base near Kandahar City described the horror of that night. A teenage boy recalled how the gunman kept firing as children scrambled, yelling: "We are children! We are children!"

An Army criminal investigations command special agent testified earlier that Bales tested positive for steroids three days after the killings, and other soldiers testified that Bales had been drinking the evening of the massacre.

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