(Updates with soldier entering guilty plea; pvs SEATTLE)
By Eric M. Johnson
TACOMA, Wash., April 22 (Reuters) - A U.S. soldier on Monday pleaded guilty to murder for shooting dead five fellow servicemen at a military counseling center in Iraq in a plea deal with military prosecutors to avoid the death penalty.
U.S. Army Sergeant John Russell was accused of killing two medical staff officers and three soldiers at Camp Liberty, adjacent to the Baghdad airport, in a 2009 shooting that the military said at the time could have been triggered by combat stress.
Russell pleaded guilty at a hearing at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state to five counts of intentional murder, one count of attempted murder, and one count of assault.
His lawyers made the agreement with U.S. Army prosecutors to plead guilty so Russell could avoid capital punishment.
If presiding Judge Army Colonel David Conn accepts the plea, Russell will still face a trial before a judge to determine the degree of his guilt and, crucially, whether he acted on impulse, as his defense attorneys argue, or with malice of forethought, as alleged by military prosecutors.
The choice would then be between a verdict of premeditated murder or the lesser offense of intentional murder to which Russell pleaded guilty. His prison term would hinge on that finding, but as part of the plea deal the death penalty would no longer be considered.
"It's at issue whether or not he pre-meditated the killings of these people or whether he snapped and killed these people out of rage that was linked to his own personal despair," Russell's civilian lawyer, James Culp, said last week.
The judge did not immediately accept Russell's plea, but did grant his request to a trial in front of a judge alone. Russell told Conn he understood that by doing so he was waving his right to a trial by jury and to confront and cross-examine witnesses that may be called against him.
Defense attorneys have said Russell, who was attached to the 54th Engineer Battalion based in Bamberg, Germany, suffered a host of mental ailments after several combat tours and was suicidal prior to the attack.
An independent forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Robert Sadoff, has concluded that Russell suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and psychosis at the time of the shootings. Sadoff suggested Russell was provoked to violence by maltreatment at the hands of mental health personnel he sought for treatment at Camp Liberty.
Conn is due to question Russell later on Monday to determine whether the circumstances of the shooting support a guilty plea and that Russell believes he is guilty. (Reporting by Eric M. Johnson; Editing by Tim Dobbyn and Grant McCool)