BAGHDAD, (AP) – U.S. jets shot down an Iranian unmanned surveillance aircraft last month over Iraqi territory about 60 miles northeast of Baghdad, the U.S. military said Monday. A U.S. statement said the Ababil 3 was tracked for about 70 minutes before U.S. jets shot it down “well-inside Iraqi airspace” and that the aircraft’s presence over Iraq “was not an accident.”
An Iraqi official said the Iranian aircraft went down near the Iraqi border town of Mandali. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
The Ababil is believed to have a maximum range of about 90 miles and can fly up to 14,000 feet. It is primarily designed for surveillance and intelligence-gathering.
U.S. officials have frequently accused the Iranians of supplying weapons, training and money to Shiite extremist groups opposed to the U.S. military presence and to the U.S.-backed Iraqi government.
Iran has denied links to militant groups inside Iraq and says the instability in this country is a result of the U.S. “occupation.” The Iranians consider the presence of about 140,000 U.S. troops in a neighboring country as a threat to their national security.
In Baghdad, a U.S. soldier was fatally injured during combat operations Monday, the U.S. said in a statement. No further details were released.
It was the first combat death reported by the U.S. military in Baghdad this month and the first among U.S. forces nationwide since March 7, when a soldier was killed in the Tikrit area.
U.S. casualties have dropped sharply since Iraqi soldiers and police have taken a greater role in security. President Barack Obama has pledged to withdraw all U.S. combat troops from Iraq by September 2010.
American combat troops are due to leave bases in Baghdad and other cities by June 30 under an agreement that provides for all U.S. forces to leave the country by the end of 2011.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told The Associated Press on Sunday that U.S. troops may stay in some areas that are not completely secure even after the June 30 date.
He did not identify those areas, but U.S. and Iraqi troops are still trying to secure Mosul, the country’s third-largest city where al-Qaida and other Sunni militant groups remain active.
Also Monday, a 12-year-old girl was killed when American soldiers fired at a vehicle speeding toward them and Iraqi police near Mosul, said the U.S. military. The military said the girl was standing about 100 yards (meters) behind the vehicle and was struck by a round.
But Iraqi police said the girl was shot while in a car with her father. The discrepancy could not be immediately explained.
Meanwhile, an Iranian opposition group said Monday that Iraqi troops tightened their siege of a camp north of Baghdad where about 3,500 of their members have been based for about 20 years.
The People’s Mujahedeen said Iraqi troops have prevented food and fuel from reaching Camp Ashraf for the past six days — despite written guarantees by the Iraqi government that it would guarantee human rights of the residents.
But Iraqi national security adviser Mouwaffak al-Rubaie branded the allegations “totally baseless.” He said People’s Mujahedeen members had taken over a building belonging to the Iraqi army and were preventing soldiers from entering it.
“They have a huge propaganda machine all over the world and are known to exaggerate things,” added al-Rubaie, whom the People’s Mujahedeen said was behind the alleged crackdown.
Iran and the United States consider the People’s Mujahedeen a terrorist group and Tehran has stepped up pressure on the Iraqis to close the camp. Iraq took over security for the camp from the U.S. on Jan. 1.
But the Iraqi government promised the U.S. that it would not force the group’s members to leave against their will.
The People’s Mujahedeen opposed Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi during the 1979 revolution but fell out with the clerical regime that replaced him. Saddam Hussein allowed the group to set up a camp during the Iran-Iraq war for staging raids across the border inside Iran.
U.S. troops disarmed the fighters and confined them to Camp Ashraf after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam.
Also Monday, residents of the Kurdish town of Halabja marked the 21st anniversary of the March 16-17 poison gas attack by Saddam’s forces against Kurdish separatists.
The 1988 attack killed thousands of people and was the biggest use of chemical weapons against a civilian populated area in history.
Local officials and victims’ relatives placed wreaths on a monument to the dead.
“The anniversary has become etched in the memory of many people,” said Aras Abbadi, who lost 21 relatives in the attack. “Every year, we wait for the anniversary and condemn that deplorable attack committed by a dictatorial regime against its own people.”
Another participant, Mariam Saleh, 59, pointed to a photograph on display that shows a truck full of victims.
“My family was in that truck,” she wept.