PIRDAWD, Iraq — American aircraft struck a convoy of Kurdish fighters and U.S. Special Forces on Sunday, in a mistaken attack that Kurds said killed at least 18 and wounded dozens more.
U.S. military officials said they were investigating what could be one of the deadliest "friendly fire" accidents of the war in Iraq. A statement from Central Command said the American warplanes were providing close air support about 30 miles southeast of Mosul in northern Iraq.
The number of casualties was unclear. Citing early reports, U.S. officials said that one civilian may have been killed and that an American soldier, a Kurdish fighter and four civilians were among the injured.
But Kurdish officials said the attack set at least 12 vehicles on fire, killing 17 fighters and a civilian translator for the BBC. Some of the shrapnel holes in the destroyed vehicles were as big as dinner plates, they said. Among the injured, they said, were some of the top military leadership of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which controls northwestern Iraq.
John Simpson, a BBC reporter who was following the convoy and who sustained minor shrapnel wounds, confirmed the scale of the attack.
"All of the vehicles are on fire, there are bodies burning all around me, bits of bodies all around," he said. "The Americans saw this convoy and they bombed it. They hit their own people."
Hoshyar Zebari, spokesman for the KDP, said he believed that two or three U.S. soldiers had been wounded.
Regional Kurdish commander Kakameen Mustafa, who was in the convoy and survived the airstrike without a scratch, said a U.S. warplane fired a single missile into the wrong target. U.S. forces shouldn't be faulted, he said.
"It's something ordinary, and we don't blame them," he said. "This is war, and everything happens in war. Sometimes even we make a mistake like that."
It was at least the second time that U.S. warplanes have mistakenly targeted KDP fighters. Last Tuesday, as Kurdish shepherds and their families slept in the village of Qurshaqlu, at least one aircraft dropped about 12 bombs, apparently targeting an antiaircraft gun on a nearby ridge that Kurdish fighters kept for defense against Iraqi troops. A 7-year-old boy was seriously wounded in the bombing.
Not counting Sunday's incident, "friendly fire" has accounted for at least six deaths among U.S.-led forces. Among those incidents, a British Challenger tank mistakenly fired on another British tank, killing two; and two British airmen died when their Tornado aircraft was shot down by a U.S. Patriot missile. U.S. officials were still investigating an incident last week in which 31 Marines were injured when another Marine unit opened fire on them near Nasiriyah.
In the 1991 Persian Gulf War, about a quarter of the nearly 150 Americans who died in action were killed by colleagues in what are also called fratricides and blue-on-blue fire.
"There have been 'friendly fire' incidents in every war in the history of mankind," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters in Washington last week.
"There are portions of this battle space that are enormously complex, and human beings are human beings, and things are going to happen, and it's always been so, and it will be so this time," he said. "It's always sad and tragic, and your heart breaks when people are killed or wounded by blue-on-blue fire."
Kurdish forces said that among the more than 45 people injured in Sunday's incident was Wajy Barzani, the KDP fighters' top commander. He was hospitalized in critical condition, suffering from what Kurdish sources described as a severe head wound.
When his condition had stabilized at Irbil's Emergency Hospital for war wounded, Barzani was airlifted on a U.S. military plane for treatment in Germany, Zebari said.
The commander is the younger brother of the KDP's prime minister, Massoud Barzani, and had been seen on several front lines in recent days, rallying his men under Iraqi artillery and machine-gun fire.
As news spread that Wajy Barzani was gravely wounded, hundreds of Kurds gathered and prayed outside the hospital. Zebari said he hoped that Barzani would return to resume his command, but he insisted that Barzani's absence would not affect the overall war plan.
"He is one of the commanders but not the only commander," Zebari said. "We have many, many top commanders of that quality -- and more professional, maybe."
Another key commander, Massoud Barzani's son Mansour, was slightly injured in the airstrike. He leads the KDP fighters' special operations forces.
Without proper ambulances or military field hospitals to treat the war wounded, Kurdish fighters had to transport the casualties about 30 miles in pickup trucks for emergency treatment in Irbil.