BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – Iraqi officials said five children were killed in a U.S. air strike on Friday which the U.S. military said killed 20 suspected al Qaeda militants.
Grieving relatives near Ishaqi, 90 km (50 miles) north of Baghdad, showed the bodies of five children wrapped in blankets to journalists.
Houses, surrounded by open fields, were flattened in the raid and police said they found the bodies of 17 civilians.
Complaints that unjustified killings by U.S. troops are common have soured Iraqis’ sentiment toward the U.S. presence in Iraq. Earlier this year Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said he was losing patience over such reports.
A bipartisan panel, exploring alternatives for U.S. President George W. Bush’s strategy, recommended this week the primary mission of U.S. forces in Iraq evolve to one of training Iraqi forces to take over combat responsibility.
In his first substantive response to the panel, that warned of a “grave and deteriorating” situation in Iraq, Bush vowed on Thursday to adopt a new strategy but distanced himself from some of its key recommendations.
More than 2,900 U.S. troops have died since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein. Tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed.
The U.S. military said ground forces with air support struck in an area north of Baghdad where the Sunni Arab insurgency is strong. Police and officials said the bodies of 17 civilians were found in the rubble of two homes. “The Americans have done this before but they always deny it,” Ishaqi Mayor Amer Alwan told Reuters by telephone. “I want the world to know what’s happening here.”
In a statement, the U.S. military said the operation in Salahaddin province followed intelligence reports that indicated al Qaeda militants operated in the area. It said rocket-propelled grenades and explosive suicide vests were found.
Only a handful of complaints involving civilian deaths have led to criminal investigations by the U.S. military.
Bush, who is scheduled to outline his new policy on Iraq before Christmas, rejected direct talks with Iran and Syria, a central recommendation by the panel. He did not shut the door on its call for a rapid increase in the training of Iraqi forces to allow most U.S. combat troops to pull out by early 2008. Troop withdrawals depended on having an Iraqi government that can defend itself and govern, he said.
Maliki has tried to show independence from his Washington backers by criticising recent U.S. raids and by demanding a bigger say in command decisions. But he is heavily dependent on the firepower of 140,000 U.S. troops battling Sunni insurgents and soaring sectarian violence.
In the largest operation of its kind since the U.S. invasion, British and Danish troops backed by tanks seized five suspects accused of attacks on coalition forces in the southern city of Basra, the British military said.
Some 1,000 troops, including amphibious assault teams, launched pre-dawn raids on five homes in the densely populated northern al-Hartha district of Basra, where rival Shi’ite militias are battling for control of the city’s oil wealth.
Britain has around 7,200 troops in southern Iraq. It hopes to pull out thousands next year and hand over control of Basra to Iraqi authorities in April.