By Ellen Knickmeyer and Salih Saif Aldin
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 4, 2006
BAGHDAD, Jan. 3 -- U.S. pilots targeting a house where they believed insurgents had taken shelter killed a family of 12, Iraqi officials said Tuesday. The dead included women and children whose bodies were recovered in the nightclothes and blankets in which they had apparently been sleeping.
A Washington Post special correspondent watched as the corpses of three women and three boys who appeared to be younger than 10 were removed Tuesday from the house outside the town of Baiji, 150 miles north of Baghdad.
A U.S. military spokesman said that American forces take every precaution to prevent civilian casualties and that they were working with Iraqi authorities to determine what happened at the farmhouse in Baiji. "We continue to see terrorists and insurgents using civilians in an attempt to shield themselves," Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a military spokesman, said in an e-mail.
The Associated Press Television News showed footage of men carrying several bodies wrapped in carpets from the wreckage of the house. The men chanted ritual prayers: "There is no god but God."
The United States has steadily intensified its use of airstrikes against insurgents in Iraq in the past year, increasing the number of attacks from 25 in January 2005 to 120 in November.
The U.S. military says that it does not count civilian deaths from American attacks, and that investigating deaths caused by any one strike is often impractical in dangerous areas. But some analysts say the U.S. military should make a systematic effort, both to test the reliability of its intelligence and to better learn how to reduce civilian casualties.
On Tuesday, Johnson said the U.S. military was trying to do that with the Baiji attack. "We are determining the facts in this particular case so we will know exactly how civilians may have been drawn into the air strike that was deemed necessary by our forces fighting insurgents on the ground," Johnson said in the e-mail.
Johnson deferred comment on civilian casualties in the strike to Iraqi officials.
U.S. forces had received the information leading to the attack from multiple sources, including existing intelligence and direct observation at the time of the strike, Johnson said in the e-mail.
A U.S. military statement said that an unmanned U.S. drone detected three men digging a hole in a road in the area. Insurgents regularly bury bombs along roads in the area to target U.S. or Iraqi convoys. The three men were tracked to a building, which U.S. forces then hit with precision-guided munitions, the statement said.
Maj. Abdul Jabbar Kaissi, a security officer in Salahuddin province, said the airstrike killed the 12-member family of his relative, Ghadban Nahi Kaissi, who is also a relative of Salahuddin Gov. Ahmad Mahmud Kaissi.
Officials said six surrounding houses were damaged and two residents in the area were wounded seriously enough to require treatment. Officials and other people at the scene said there had been no insurgents in the house targeted.
As American forces cordoned off the site Tuesday morning, the Post special correspondent witnessed emergency workers carrying out the bodies of the three boys on the thin mattresses where they had been found. Search crews used blankets to wrap up the bodies.
Emergency workers also retrieved the bodies of three women -- a bloodied older woman whose head was wrapped in a black veil and two younger women whose hair was uncovered and who were dressed for bed. The head of one of the two young women was crushed.
"I would certainly think that if they believe they had strong intelligence about enemy activity they would want to confirm that they had killed their intended targets and want to understand if they had killed or injured innocent people inadvertently," said Sarah Sewall, who was deputy assistant secretary of defense for peacekeeping and humanitarian aid during the Clinton administration. She is now program director at Harvard University's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.
Separately Tuesday, top Iraqi police officials in the southern city of Basra said an Iranian citizen was among three men detained in a raid Sunday that uncovered a large amount of arms and explosives. One of the officials said some of the seized ordnance had markings showing it to had been made in Iran. The raid was in Nashwa, east of Basra, near the Iran-Iraq border.
The ordnance included 235 sticks of dynamite, as well as artillery and mortar shells and antitank mines, officials said.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad recently warned Iran against sending weapons into Iraq. A top U.S. military official, who spoke on condition that he not be identified further, had said repeatedly that weapons and guerrillas were entering Iraq from Iran.
Specific accounts of such smuggling seldom emerge. Police and officials in southern areas bordering Iran, and in the Interior Ministry in Baghdad, are predominantly Shiites. Many are members of religious political parties with links to Iran, a Shiite theocracy.
In northern Iraq, meanwhile, Kurdish regional leader Massoud Barzani held post-election talks with Sunni Arab leaders, telling reporters after the meeting that "we have agreed on a national unity government." Negotiations on the makeup of a coalition government will continue in Baghdad, Barzani said.
In Baghdad, however, spokesmen in the Shiite religious alliance that early results show netted the biggest share of votes in last month's election said the alliance would accept only coalition partners that favored federalism and strong measures against members of the Baath Party that ruled Iraq under Saddam Hussein.
The measures would be antithetical to most prospective Sunni coalition partners, however. Their members come from the Sunni minority that lost power with the overthrow of Hussein's government.
Also in Baghdad Tuesday, police said a sister of Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, a Shiite, had been kidnapped, but Jabr's political party denied the abduction had occurred. Parts of central Baghdad were locked down as police searched for the woman.
Aldin reported from Baiji.