BAGHDAD — U.S. forces mistakenly dropped a 500-pound bomb on a house outside the northern city of Mosul early Saturday morning, the military acknowledged, killing at least five Iraqis.
In an unusual step, the military released a statement saying the wrong house had been bombed and expressing regret at the loss of "possibly innocent lives."
The homeowner and witnesses in Aitha, 30 miles south of Mosul, put the death toll at 14, all from the same family.
Half of those killed were children, the Iraqis said. Six other people were injured in the predawn bombing that reduced the brick house to rubble.
Neighbors described a grisly, futile search for victims' remains.
"We wanted to get the bodies out from under the debris," Zaydan Mizai, 34, said. The bomb, however, had left little behind to recover, he said.
The errant attack comes as U.S. and Iraqi military planners have stepped up operations in Mosul, responding to pressure to quell violence in Iraq's third-largest city before the national election three weeks away.
Nineveh province, of which Mosul is the capital, is among four restive regions that U.S. officials have characterized as too volatile to conduct a vote. In the last week, a rise in violence by insurgents claimed nearly 100 lives.
At least five people died in fresh attacks Saturday, which also brought reports that four Iraqi government officials from Salahuddin province had been kidnapped.
The airstrike in Aitha was meant to support ground troops searching for an insurgent cell leader, U.S. officials said. An F-16 jet dropped a laser-guided bomb but hit the wrong spot.
"The house was not the intended target for the airstrike," the military said in its statement. "The intended target was another location nearby."
Admissions of mistakes from the U.S. military are rare.
Even when the Army has expressed regret over the killing of Iraqi civilians at checkpoints, it has often pointed out that the victims had been driving erratically or aggressively.
In May, U.S. forces came under fierce criticism here for an air attack on a village near the Syrian border that killed about 40 people, including women and children.
The military insisted that those killed were involved in smuggling foreign fighters into Iraq and that the houses attacked were way stations for militants. Residents said the rockets struck a wedding party.
After a video emerged showing the wedding in progress before the attack, Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, then chief military spokesman for U.S.-led forces in Iraq, said, "Bad people have parties too."
Tension has increased in Mosul as the Jan. 30 election grows nearer, with U.S. and Iraqi forces determined to ensure the vote goes forward.
Between 6,000 and 8,000 additional troops, including 3,000 U.S. soldiers, have poured into the city in the last 10 days, a military spokesman there said.
The pace of raids and detentions has accelerated.
On Saturday, multinational forces in Mosul arrested a man described as a key associate of Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian militant with links to the Al Qaeda terrorist network who is blamed for organizing and fanning Iraq's insurgency. An additional 17 suspects were detained and accused of planning or conducting attacks.
"In the next week or so you will see a considerable increase in presence and control of Mosul," a senior U.S. Embassy official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "My guess is that people will be able to vote in Mosul."
Violence has worsened elsewhere as insurgents target Iraqis who are in government or cooperate with U.S. forces.
Gunmen abducted four officials in Salahuddin, including the head of the provincial council, Ali Ghalib, as they drove back from a meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the leading Shiite Muslim cleric, to discuss the election.
The attack occurred late Friday near the town of Latifiya, about 20 miles south of Baghdad, in an area so beset by ambushes and kidnappings that it has become known as the "triangle of death."
Militants struck again in the same region Saturday, when a booby-trapped car exploded at a gas station in the town of Mahawil. The blast killed at least one person and wounded 20 others, all civilians, although it might have been aimed at a nearby roadblock staffed by Iraqi security forces.
Casualties also continued to mount in Iraq's Sunni Muslim heartland, the region with the strongest ties to Saddam Hussein.
The bodies of three businessmen were found floating in a lake west of Samarra, and in Baqubah, insurgents broke into the house of an interpreter who worked for the Army and beheaded him, police said.
Times staff writer Edmund Sanders in Baghdad and special correspondent Roaa Ahmed in Mosul contributed to this report.