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The Air Force effort to court-martial six officers for their role in shooting down two U.S. Army helicopters over northern Iraq represents a stunning break with the way the Pentagon has handled "friendly fire" in the past.

Retired Army Lt. Col. Charles R. Shrader, author of the Pentagon's definitive study on friendly fire, said American air crews have not been court martialed for mistaken attacks on allied forces or civilians since a rare prosecution during World War II."Generally these tragedies are considered to be just what they are - unfortunate events that nobody can really prevent or control," said Shrader, author of a study for the Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., that examined incidents of fratricide going back to World War I.

Shrader, a veteran of 23 years of Army service, said the Air Force decision to file charges in the wake of a friendly fire incident reflects a change in the political climate.

"Military and political leaders are generally skittish" in the wake of the Navy's Tailhook scandal in which Navy and Marine aviators were accused of manhandling wom-en during a convention in Las Vegas, Shrader said. Officials "feel constrained to take official action so that no one can say they ignored the situation."

The impact of the prosecutions for friendly fire could be devastating for the 1.6 million-member armed forces, Shrader warned.

"I would be very hesitant to set this precedent," said Shrader, who now lives near the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. "This induces hesitation in combat - and that can get people killed."

The Air Force filed charges Thursday against an F-15 pilot and five officers aboard an Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft (AWACS), for their roles in mistakenly destroying two Army Blackhawk helicopters operating in a U.S.-enforced "no-fly" zone in northern Iraq on April 14.

Some 26 people were killed, including 15 Americans, five Kurds and military officers from Britain, France and Turkey. The slain personnel were coordinating support for Kurds who have been under allied protection from Iraqi forces since the end of the Persian Gulf War in 1991.

It was the deadliest mistaken attack on American forces since the Vietnam War.

The April incident contrasted with the flawless coordination between fighters and AWACS planes during the 43-day Persian Gulf War. Allied air forces flew 110,000 sorties over Iraq, Kuwait and the Arabian peninsula without a single incident of air-to-air fratricide.

However, American ground forces during the Persian Gulf War suffered a higher rate of friendly fire casualties than in any previous conflict, with nearly one-quarter of U.S. fatalities attributed to fire from U.S. forces.

Of 615 Americans killed or wounded, 107 fell victim to U.S. attacks. Twenty-two Britons also were killed or wounded by U.S. forces, as well.

Nonetheless, the Pentagon under Defense Secretary Richard Cheney did not prosecute anyone in connection with the gulf war losses. The commander of one Apache helicopter battalion was cashiered after mistaking an Army armored vehicle for an Iraqi tank and destroying it. But he was removed for violating orders to stay in the rear rather than for his role in the costly friendly fire incident.

The lone occasion in which American military personnel were court martialed for a friendly fire incident dates back to the closing days of World War II when a pair of B-24 pilots were court martialed for mistakenly bombing civilian positions in neutral Switzerland, Shrader said.

The Air Force was forced to stage a "show trial" of the pilots in an apparent effort to pay homage to Swiss neutrality, Shrader said. The court martial was led by then-Air Force Col. Jimmy Stewart, the Hollywood actor. The pilots were acquitted, Shrader said.

"To the best of my knowledge that was the only true friendly fire incident that I know of in which charges were brought and the case went to trial," Shrader said.

The F-15 pilot, identified as Lt. Col. Randy W. May of the 53rd Fighter Squadron, based in Spandahlhem, Germany, faces 26 charges of negligent homicide and two charges of dereliction of duty. The charges carry a maximum penalty of up to 26 years in prison. The pilot of a second F-15 was not charged.

Charges of dereliction of duty were lodged against the five AWACS crew members, each of whom could face dismissal, forfeiture of two-thirds of all pay for three months and confinement up to three months.

All six Air Force officers now face the military equivalent of a grand jury, where a panel will determine whether they face court martial.

The Pentagon concluded that the AWACS crew failed to warn the F-15 pilots that the helicopters might be American. The F-15 pilots mistook the U.S. helicopters for Soviet-built Hind helicopters flown by Iraq and destroyed them with air-to-air missiles.

The incident drew immediate high-level attention. President Clinton attended a memorial service for the dead, declaring that his administration would "find the answers" to the tragedy.

Defense Secretary William Perry vowed "full accountability on what happened" and subsequently ordered the Pentagon to pay each of the foreign victims' families $100,000. The U.S. personnel were covered by life insurance.