BAGHDAD (AP) – The court-martial that cleared a U.S. Army sniper of two counts of murder sentenced him Saturday to five months in prison, reduced his rank to private and ordered his pay withheld for planting evidence in the deaths of two Iraqi civilians.

Sectarian violence, meanwhile, claimed at least 40 more lives across Iraq, with a flurry of attacks around the northern city of Mosul where bombs, gunmen and mortar fire killed 14.

Two U.S. soldiers were killed by gunfire, one in Diyala province north of Baghdad and one in a southern district of the capital.

Spc. Jorge G. Sandoval, 22, was acquitted Friday of murder charges in the April and May deaths of two unidentified men.

The five-man, two-woman panel decided he was guilty of a lesser charges of placing detonation wire on one of the bodies to make it look as if the man was an insurgent.

“I feel fortunate that I have been served this sentence,” Sandoval said. “I’m grateful that I’m able to continue to be in the Army.”

Military prosecutors had argued Sandoval should be sentenced to five years in prison.

The Laredo, Texas-native had faced five charges in the deaths of the two unidentified Iraqi men. In dramatic testimony during the four-day court-martial, one of Sandoval’s colleagues, Sgt. Evan Vela, testified he had pulled the trigger and killed one of the men Sandoval was accused of murdering.

Vela said the sniper team was following orders when it shot the men during two separate incidents near Iskandariyah, a volatile Sunni-dominated area 30 miles south of Baghdad, on April 27 and May 11.

Vela and Staff Sgt. Michael Hensley will be tried separately in the case. All three soldiers are part of the Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, based at Fort Richardson, Alaska.

Gary Myers, one of Vela’s lawyers, claimed this week that Army snipers hunting insurgents in Iraq were under orders to “bait” their targets with suspicious materials, such as detonation cords, then kill those who picked up the items. He said his client was acting on orders.

Asked about the “baiting program,” Capt. Craig Drummond, Sandoval’s military defense attorney, said it was unclear “what programs were going on out there and when,” especially “if there were things that were done that made the rules of engagement not clear.”

Vela goes before an Article 34 hearing, the equivalent of a civilian grand jury, on Sunday. The U.S. military, which initially said the hearing would be open to reporters, subsequently closed the proceedings. Hensley, who has already faced such a hearing, goes on trial Oct. 22.

In violence Saturday, Iraqi soldiers acting on a tip tried to intercept a suicide driver as his pickup truck headed toward Mosul, 225 miles northwest of Baghdad. As the Iraqi Humvee neared the truck, the driver detonated his explosive payload, according to the officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. Three soldiers and three civilians were killed, the official said.

Twenty-five miles northeast of Mosul, Iraq’s third largest city, a parked car bomb exploded in Hamdaniyah, killing four policemen and two civilians, according to police Brig. Mohammed al-Wagga.

Also in Mosul, a drive-by gunman killed a top local Sunni religious figure and a journalist died in a mortar attack.

At the end of a three-day trip to Syria, Iraq’s Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi said his country would not be used as a base to launch attacks against Iran or Syria.

The Sunni vice president said he discussed security and other regional issues with Syrian President Bashar Assad on Saturday.

In response to a reporter’s question about a possible U.S. military strike against Iran, the Iraqi vice president said: “Iraq does not accept that its territory be used for any aggression against any neighboring country.”

The government, meanwhile, announced a start date for the reconstruction of a revered Shiite shrine badly damaged in two bombings, one of which unleashed the sectarian strife that has shredded the fabric of Iraq society.

Rebuilding of the al-Askariya shrine in Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, will begin after the holy month of Ramadan in mid-October, said Haqi al-Hakim, a construction adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

The first attack on the shrine’s golden dome in February 2006 by suspected al-Qaida bombers ignited sectarian fighting between Sunnis and Shiites that has plagued Iraq ever since. A second attack a year later toppled the towering minarets of the shrine.

AP-ES-09-29-07 1436EDT

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