Proceedings against Captain Rogelio Maynulet, 29, charged with murdering an Iraqi follower of the Shia Muslim leader Muqtada al-Sadr, were postponed on Wednesday while his division was sent back to Germany.

A spokesman for the First Armoured Division, speaking from its headquarters in Wiesbaden, said the accused attended a hearing in a military court building attached to a US army base at Hanau, near the western city of Frankfurt.

He was unable to give further details on the proceedings.

Not a trial

Major Mike Indovina, the division's public affairs officer, stressed that the case had not come to trial and that Maynulet had not faced a judge but an investigating officer.

"This is a fact-finding Article 32 investigation which began on June 25 2004," Indovina said, explaining the legal terms of
reference.

The US military's Article 32 probe is the equivalent of a grand jury hearing that could initiate court martial hearings. A full court martial could result in the officer being jailed, fined and dismissed from the army.

US soldiers have also faced heat
for maltreatment of Iraqi POWs

Maynulet, who has denied the allegations, was charged on 12 June with murder and dereliction of duty for the suspected killing of a follower of Muqtada al-Sadr.

"The charges stem from an incident in which US forces near Kufa came into contact with a black sedan believed to contain militia forces," said a US army statement in Baghdad on 2 July.

"A chase began and US forces shot at the vehicle. The driver and a passenger were wounded. Shortly thereafter, the wounded driver was shot and killed at close range."

The military was referring to an incident on 21 May in which Sadr aide Muhammad al-Tabtabai was arrested by US troops as he headed back from Kufa to its twin city of Najaf, 160km (100 miles) south of Baghdad.

Sadr's Mahdi Army militia battled the US military around the Shia shrine cities of Najaf and neighbouring Kufa, a stronghold of the young Shia leader, from April through to early June.

The US military started to announce probes into the conduct of soldiers and officers after the revelations of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison where Iraqi prisoners were sexually humiliated and beaten by guards.