An Army officer investigating the death of an Iraqi general during an interrogation last fall ruled Thursday that a hearing for three soldiers charged in the case must be closed to the public.

Allowing the public and the media to observe the hearing "would cause serious damage to national security" and could jeopardize the defendants' safety, investigating officer Capt. Robert Ayers said.

The Article 32 hearing (search), the military equivalent of a civilian-court preliminary hearing, for the three soldiers began shortly after Ayers made his decision.

An attorney for The Denver Post argued that closure should be limited to testimony involving evidence that could threaten national security.

"This is information the American people are profoundly and legitimately interested in knowing," Steve Zansberg told Ayers.

Zansberg also said many details in the death have already been publicized.

Ayers said the entire hearing for the soldiers would be closed to the public. They and one other soldier are accused of smothering Maj. Gen. Abed Hamed Mowhoush (search), 57, at Qaim, Iraq, on Nov. 26, 2003. The soldiers could get life in prison without parole if convicted.

The Army said Mowhoush died of asphyxiation from chest compression. Charging documents in the case said he was killed with an electrical cord, and a Pentagon report given to Congress in June reportedly says a soldier sat on Mowhoush as he was restrained inside a sleeping bag.

Chief Warrant Officers Jefferson Williams, Sgt. 1st Class William Sommer, Spc. Jerry Loper and Lewis Welshofer Jr. are charged with murder and dereliction of duty.

Welshofer's hearing will be held later, Fort Carson officials said.

Williams, Sommer and Welshofer are with military intelligence and Fort Carson officials said parts of Thursday's hearing may be closed to the public. All four soldiers were assigned to the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment based at Fort Carson at the time of Mowhoush's death.

The handling of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. troops has become a worldwide scandal, fed by images from the Abu Ghraib prison (search).

At least 19 prisoner deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan have been investigated as homicides by the military; eight were determined to be justified killings of an escaping or dangerously violent prisoner.