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THE WORLD

Iraqi police, U.S. at odds over helicopter assault

May 23, 2008|Alexandra Zavis and Saif Rasheed | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — A local Iraqi police chief Thursday accused the U.S. military of killing seven Iraqi civilians, including at least one child, in a helicopter strike in northern Iraq.

The military said the adults were members of a bombing network, but it added that two children were killed in the clash.

Wednesday's incident, the latest in a series of strikes that have injured or killed civilians, could raise tensions between U.S. troops and Sunni Arab tribesmen who have become allies in the fight against militants loyal to the group Al Qaeda in Iraq.

It came as U.S. officials were seeking to soothe local anger over the actions of a soldier who used a Koran for target practice. The abuse of Islam's holy book drew apologies this week from senior military commanders and President Bush.

The strike also came as a television station linked to Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's Islamic Dawa Party accused U.S. snipers of killing one of its cameramen during clashes Wednesday in east Baghdad. The military said all those killed that day were militants.

Col. Mudhir Qaisi, the police chief in Baiji, an oil-refining town just north of where the helicopter strike occurred, said he had been in constant contact with U.S. forces Thursday.

"We told the Americans that we went through very hard times to create good relations between the three sides -- U.S. forces, civilians and local police -- and incidents like this one will definitely threaten these relations," Qaisi said. "We will try to correct this mistake, but we can't bring the lives of people back."

Col. Jerry O'Hara, a military spokesman, said the U.S.-led force in Iraq "sincerely regrets the injury of any innocent civilians and condemns those terrorists who place civilians recklessly in harm's way."

Qaisi said the victims were Sunni farmers traveling in a minivan in the Mizari region. A relative of the dead, Fulaiyh Shimmari, gave a different account. He said the family had gathered in the evening after receiving word that one of their members was about to be released from U.S. custody.

"We saw the U.S. Humvees surrounding the houses of our family, and then U.S. choppers dropped soldiers on the gathering of cars and people," Shimmari said by telephone. "The guests and relatives panicked. Some of them fled on foot like me to their houses and others took their cars and escaped."

Shimmari said three of the seven people in a vehicle targeted by the helicopter were killed, including a child. Four people on foot were shot and killed as they fled, he said.

The military said the occupants of the vehicle had "exhibited hostile intent" and that U.S. forces tried to detain them using nonlethal force, including firing three warning shots, before engaging the vehicle. It did not specify in its statement what method was used in the attack.

According to the military account, five terrorists died in the car along with two children, and a suspect was killed in a nearby field. Detainees captured at the scene told U.S. forces that those killed in the vehicle included the person they had been targeting, the military said.

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Suicide attack

Earlier in the day, the military said, U.S. forces attempting to seize a weapons cache in the area were attacked by two men, who hurled grenades at the troops and then blew themselves up.

Meanwhile, Afaq TV said U.S. snipers killed cameraman Wisam Ali Udah as he walked home Wednesday in the capital's Ubaidi neighborhood. Local police said Udah was one of at least 14 Iraqis killed that day in exchanges between U.S. forces and Shiite militiamen.

Residents said the victims included a number of other civilians. But Lt. Col. Steven Stover, a military spokesman, said all 14 were extremists, who were "positively identified as either committing a violent act or posed a threat to commit a violent act before each engagement."

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alexandra.zavis@latimes.com

Times staff writer Raheem Salman and special correspondents in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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