BAGHDAD — The frantic phone call came late at night to the Sunni tribal leader. It was his brother, shouting that he was under attack from the U.S. forces he was trying to help.
Hours later, Sheik Shadhir Abid Salim Assaf says, his brother was dead, along with dozens of other men whom Assaf had recruited to bolster American troops fighting insurgents around Tarmiya, 25 miles north of Baghdad.
U.S. military officials said Friday that they could not confirm what Assaf and other Iraqis said was a catastrophic communications mix-up that led U.S. troops at one base to attack local fighters on a mission approved by U.S. troops at another base.
The clashes, which began late Tuesday and ended early Wednesday, left at least 25 people dead. The U.S. military says those slain were suspected insurgents who attacked American forces pursuing members of the group Al Qaeda in Iraq.
Asked about the allegations that friendly Iraqi forces were hit, Maj. Winfield Danielson III, an U.S. military spokesman, said Friday that the military had no confirmation of this. "I can only say that we had personnel on the ground who engaged a hostile force that fired on them and whom they suspected of being terrorist affiliates," he said.
Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the No. 2 American commander in Iraq, said the incident was under investigation.
"We're still actually trying to figure out what happened and investigating that," he said. "We do know there were Al Qaeda operatives there. We do know there were heavy weapons there. We do know there was a lot of opposition. We do know there were some suicide vests there. We know we hit the right place."
The incident was the latest to fuel Iraqi anger over the United States' use of airstrikes in Iraq, where ground troops face rough terrain, roadside bombs and difficulty reaching remote areas where insurgents hide.
Last year, U.S. troops launched 229 aerial bombings over Iraq. There have been more than four times as many this year, according to Air Force Maj. Gen. David Edgington, the director of air operations for U.S. forces in the country. The number began to increase significantly after the U.S. military buildup that brought an additional 28,500 troops to Iraq began in mid-February.
Although airstrikes allow U.S. forces to hit targets in hard-to-reach locations, they also endanger civilians or other noncombatants who from a distance might not be clearly identified.
U.S. officials say they use on-the-ground intelligence and advanced weapons technology to avoid mistakes. Smaller warheads in bombs, for example, allow forces to destroy buildings from the inside without causing major damage to surrounding areas, Edgington said.
Troops conduct hours and sometimes days of surveillance before calling airstrikes to destroy buildings, he said. But officials acknowledge that errors have occurred.
Last month, the military said 15 women and children were killed when U.S. forces bombed a suspected insurgent hide-out near Tharthar Lake northwest of Baghdad. It said 15 suspected insurgents also were killed.
Assaf, the leader of Sunni tribal chiefs in the Tarmiya area, put the death toll from this week's incident at 40. He said nearly all were men on a nighttime mission in support of the U.S.-led effort to root out insurgents.
Assaf said his brother, Malik Abid Salim, made his frantic call late Tuesday. "My brother called me before he died and told me the U.S. forces are bombing us," he said.
Assaf said he telephoned U.S. officials at a nearby base in Taji to try to get the firing stopped. They told him that U.S. officials at another base farther north, Balad, had ordered the strikes and only they could halt them, he said.
"I continued calling until 2 a.m., but all in vain," Assaf said.
He said Salim and the other men had been wearing reflective bands provided by U.S. troops to identify them at night as friendly forces.
On Thursday, hundreds of residents held a demonstration to protest the incident.
Abu Jafar, who was on the mission, said he could not understand why the group was fired upon. "We were wearing our bands that the Americans gave us. The illuminated part of it is something that cannot be faked," he said.
Jafar said they telephoned Assaf in hopes that he could stop the attack, but it was of no use. "I saw my comrades turning into shreds, screaming and shouting. We couldn't find a place to hide."
Assaf said the incident had broken the bonds between tribal leaders in the area and the U.S. forces. "They didn't respect their promises to us. They let us down, killed our brothers and sons after we helped them and put our hands in their hands to fight Al Qaeda," he said.
South of the capital, U.S. fighter jets Friday bombed a tiny island in the Euphrates River and flew hundreds of troops into the area in search of two U.S. troops missing since May.
The air assault was the latest attempt to learn the fate of the men, who were captured when militants attacked soldiers in two Humvees about 15 miles south of the capital. Four U.S. soldiers and an Iraqi interpreter died in the attack. Three Americans were abducted, one of whom was later found dead. Insurgents said they had killed the other two, but offered no proof.
The captors are believed to have fled across the river into two villages suspected of harboring insurgent forces.
The U.S. military said in a statement that Friday's predawn air raid involved helicopter airlifts of 600 troops, including 150 Iraqis, into the villages, Owaisat and Betra.
The plan is to establish a base in the area to quell insurgent activity, the statement said.
Times staff writer Ned Parker and special correspondents in Baghdad contributed to this report.