BAIJI, Iraq (Reuters) – A U.S. military helicopter air strike on Wednesday night killed eight civilians, including two children and an elderly man, north of Baghdad, police officials said on Thursday.
Colonel Mudhher al-Qaisi, police chief in the town of Baiji, said the attack was on a group of shepherds in a car in a farming area. Relatives said some of those killed were fleeing on foot after the U.S. military arrived in the area.
“This is a criminal act. It will make the relations between Iraqi citizens and the U.S. forces tense. This will negatively affect security improvements,” al- Qaisi told Reuters.
A U.S. military spokeswoman, Lt-Col Maura Gillen, said the helicopter fired after noting “suspicious activity,” and people in the car had ignored warnings to stop the vehicle.
U.N. officials have expressed concern at the number of civilians killed in air strikes in Iraq and said more care must be taken in military operations to protect them.
Senior government officials were outraged after reports this month that a U.S. soldier had used a copy of the Koran, the Muslim holy book, for target practice. The soldier was disciplined and removed from Iraq.
Reuters photographs showed relatives of the dead standing beside their corpses covered by white sheets outside a mosque in Baiji, 180 km (110 miles) north of Baghdad.
“There were two boys (victims), one was eight and the other was 11,” said police major Ahmed Hussein.
A doctor who asked not to be named said Baiji hospital received eight bodies after the incident, which took place in the early evening, including that of a 60-year-old man.
Ghafil Rashed said his brother and son were killed.
“The Americans raided our houses … People start fleeing with their children, then the aircraft started bombing people in a street along the farm.”
The U.S. military said the incident was under investigation.
“Coalition forces regret the loss of innocent civilian lives,” said Navy Capt. Gordon Delcambre in a press statement. “Terrorists continue to show their disregard for human life by endangering children with their illegal and violent activities.”