BAGHDAD (AP) – A U.S. helicopter strike north of Baghdad killed eight people in a vehicle, including at least two children, Iraqi officials said, insisting all the dead were civilians. The U.S. military said six were al-Qaida militants but acknowledged children were killed.
AP Television News footage showed the bodies of three children in blood-drenched clothes, the eldest appearing to be in his early teens, along with the bodies of five men, at the hospital in Beiji, where the dead were taken after Wednesday evening’s strike.
Iraqi and U.S. officials on Thursday each put the number of slain children at two. The reason for the discrepancies between the two accounts and the TV footage was not known. It was the latest incident threatening to alienate Sunni Arabs, who have played a key role in the steep decline in violence over the past year by joining forces with the Americans against al-Qaida in Iraq. Beiji, an oil hub 155 miles (250 kilometers) north of Baghdad, lies in a largely Sunni Arab area. The strike came as the U.S. was trying to ease Iraqi anger over the shooting of a copy of the Quran by an American sniper, who used Islam’s holy book for target practice.
In Afghanistan on Thursday, a NATO soldier and two demonstrators were killed at a violent protest over the Quran shooting.
Iraq has not seen any street protests over the Quran shooting, which took place earlier this month in a Sunni area west of Baghdad. But Iraqi leaders have loudly denounced the act, prompting a series of apologies from U.S. military commanders and President George W. Bush. The U.S. military says the sniper was disciplined and removed from Iraq.
In the attack near Beiji, the military said its forces were targeting members of an al-Qaida suicide bombing network. The forces engaged the occupants of a vehicle after they refused to surrender and “exhibited hostile intent.”
It said five suspected “terrorists” were killed along with two children in the vehicle. A sixth militant was killed in a field next to the road, according to a statement.
Beiji police Col. Mudhher al-Qaisi, however, said the dead were six civilian farmers and two children who were fleeing in their vehicle from the area after the U.S. forces launched their raids. He said a U.S. helicopter became suspicious of their vehicle and opened fire on it. “The residents feel angry now over this act by the American troops. The victims were unarmed and work as farmers,” al-Qaisi said.
Mohammed al-Shimmari, who lives in the area, said the raid took place when a group of his relatives gathered at the home of his cousin after hearing he would be released soon from U.S. custody. He said the Americans were holding the cousin on suspicion of insurgent ties. When U.S. forces launched a raid on the cousin’s house, those inside fled. They included the group of eight in a minibus, which was then struck by the helicopter, said al-Shimmari, who lives near his cousin.
The U.S. military refused to confirm the mode of attack or specify what weapons were used, saying only that its forces “engaged the target vehicle’s occupants.”
U.S. spokesman Col. Jerry O’Hara said the military “sincerely regrets when any innocent civilians are injured, resulting from terrorists locating themselves in and around them. We take every precaution to protect innocent civilians and engage only hostile threats.”
Iraqi security forces have launched a series of campaigns to impose their control in areas dominated by armed groups, including Sadr City in Baghdad, the southern city of Basra and the northern city of Mosul.
On Tuesday, some 10,000 Iraqi soldiers and police deployed in Sadr City, which for years was the unquestioned bastion of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia. The deployment was enabled by a truce between al-Sadr and the government.
Although the deployment has been peaceful, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, warned it was fragile.
“We’re hopeful that it will hold. But we recognize that, like anything, it is fragile and so there are a number of things that could happen, and we have to prepare ourselves for that eventuality,” he told The Associated Press in an interview Thursday.
He said violence had dropped dramatically in Iraq, with only 288 attacks, or an average of 41 per day, reported last week, the lowest number since April 2004. In a more dramatic example, he said only 15 attacks targeted U.S. forces on Wednesday, but that the military expects “episodic spikes” in the violence as militants try to regroup.
Militia violence has increased in areas of eastern Baghdad near Sadr City.
Three people were killed in clashes late Wednesday in the Obeida district. Among them was Iraqi television cameraman Wissam Ali Auda, of Afaq TV, who was apparently caught in the crossfire on his way home, said Tariq Maher, an Afaq correspondent. The station is affiliated with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Dawa party.
In a second journalist killing, the bullet-riddled body of Hashim al-Hussein, a correspondent for the Sharq newspaper who was kidnapped Tuesday, was found dumped near the city of Baqouba, north of Baghdad, police and morgue officials said.
Excluding the two deaths reported Thursday, at least 127 journalists and 50 media workers have been killed in Iraq since the war started, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.