March 28, 2006 in Nation/World

Controversial raid in Iraq intensifies furor

Steven R. Hurst Associated Press
 

BAGHDAD, Iraq – Shiite politicians raged at the United States and halted negotiations on a new government Monday after a military assault killed at least 16 people in what Iraqis claim was a mosque. Fresh violence erupted in the north, with 40 killed in a suicide bombing.

The firestorm of recrimination over Sunday’s raid in northeast Baghdad will likely make it harder for Shiite politicians to keep a lid on their more angry followers as sectarian violence boils over, with at least 151 dead over the two-day period. A unity government involving Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds is a benchmark for American hopes of starting to withdraw troops this summer.

There were numerous conflicting statements from Iraqis and the Americans about the raid. Iraqi police, Shiite militia officials and major politicians have all said the structure attacked was the al-Mustafa mosque. But the U.S. military disputed this, saying no mosques were entered and that the raid targeted a building used by “insurgents responsible for kidnapping and execution activities.”

In a conference call with reporters early Tuesday, Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, deputy commander in Iraq, and Maj. Gen. J.D. Thurman, commander of the 4th Infantry Division, which is in control of Baghdad, said 25 U.S. soldiers were in a backup role to 50 Iraqi Special Operations troops.

The mission, the generals said, was developed by the Iraqis on their intelligence that an Iraqi dental technician, kidnapped 12 hours earlier because he could not come up with $20,000, was being held in what they called an office complex.

“It’s important to remember we had an Iraqi unit with us, an Iraqi unit of 50 folks and they told us point blank that this was not a mosque,” Chiarelli said. “It’s not Mustafa mosque. Mustafa mosque is located six blocks north on our maps of this location.”

Associated Press reporters who visited the scene of the raid identified it as a neighborhood Shiite mosque complex. Television footage taken Monday showed crumbling walls and disarray in a compound used as a gathering place for prayer.

In an earlier statement, the military said the building had been under U.S. observation for some time.

The statement said gunmen opened fire as Iraqi special operations troops closed in. It said the troops then killed 16 insurgents and wounded three “during a house-to-house search,” detained 18 men, found a significant weapons cache and freed the hostage.

“In our observation of the place and the activities that were going on, it’s difficult for us to consider this a place of prayer,” said Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a U.S. military spokesman.

For their part, Iraqi police said gunmen fired on the joint U.S.-Iraqi patrol from a position in the neighborhood but not from the mosque.

Police and representatives of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who holds great sway among poor Shiites in eastern Baghdad, said all those killed were in the complex for prayers and none was a gunman. Police put the death toll at 17 – seven members of al-Sadr’s militia, seven civilians and three Shiite political activists.

Video from Sunday night showed male bodies with gunshot wounds on the floor of what was said by the cameraman to be the imam’s living quarters, attached to mosque itself.

The video also showed 5.56 mm shell casings scattered on the floor. U.S. forces use that caliber ammunition and have provided it to Iraqi special operations troops.

But Chiarelli said someone had gone into the scene of the raid to make it look as though there had been an assault without cause.

“After the fact someone went in and made the scene look different than it was,” Chiarelli said.

Neither general would say who might have carried out such a charade. Nor would they say what they had learned about the men detained in the operation, citing intelligence strictures.

Interior Minister Bayan Jabr angrily rejected the U.S. account and demanded a “clear explanation.”

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