BAGHDAD – The deaths of nine civilians, including a child, in a U.S. airstrike south of Baghdad have raised fresh concerns about the military’s ability to distinguish friend from foe in a campaign to uproot insurgents from Sunni areas on the capital’s doorstep.
Witnesses and Iraqi police said helicopters strafed a house Saturday after confusing U.S.-allied Sunni fighters for extremists in the deadliest case of mistaken identity since November. The U.S. military on Monday confirmed the civilian deaths, but gave few other details of the Army gunship attack.
The bloodshed also points to the wider complications for U.S.-led offensives against insurgents in populated areas: As the firepower increases so do the risks of claiming innocent lives. And each such death potentially frays the crucial alliances between the Pentagon and new Sunni allies, widely known as Awakening Councils.
It was one of these groups that apparently was caught in the clash near Iskandariyah, about 30 miles south of Baghdad – an area where U.S.-led forces stepped up an air and ground assault last month against al-Qaida in Iraq footholds.
A farmer who lives near the site said the Americans retaliated after a mortar attack against a U.S. convoy as it passed a checkpoint manned by Awakening Council fighters.
The soldiers apparently thought the barrage came from the Awakening Council fighters, who fled to a nearby house, said Issa Mahdi.
“After awhile, U.S. helicopters arrived and bombarded the house where the awakening members were hiding,” he said.
Abu Abeer, who said he was guarding a post nearby when the attack occurred, claimed the helicopters were targeting anybody near the house in the village of Tal al-Samar.
“It was a crime and it shows the Americans’ disrespect for Iraqi blood. The U.S. apology will not bring the dead people back to life,” he said, adding he is from the same al-Ghrir tribe as those who were killed.
The U.S. military said only that a child and eight other Iraqi civilians were killed and three others, including two children, were wounded as U.S. troops pursued suspected al-Qaida militants.
American officers met with a local sheik representing citizens in the area and expressed condolences to the families of those killed, according to a brief e-mailed statement.