By Joshua Partlow and David Finkel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 13, 2007
BAGHDAD, July 12 -- U.S. soldiers in eastern Baghdad clashed with Shiite militiamen on Thursday, leaving at least 11 Iraqis dead and an unknown number injured, including two children hit by shrapnel from a U.S. helicopter attack, according to American soldiers who took part in the mission.
The intensive six-hour operation began at 6 a.m., when 240 U.S. soldiers in 65 Humvees, several Bradley Fighting Vehicles and two Apache attack helicopters descended on the al-Amin neighborhood, along with a dozen Iraqi troops, in response to increasing attacks on American soldiers by members of the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia loyal to cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
During the fighting, an Apache helicopter fired bursts of 30mm rounds toward several people who had been directing machine-gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades at U.S. soldiers. The helicopter also fired on a silver Toyota minivan in the area as several people approached the vehicle, soldiers said.
Two of the civilians killed during the fighting were with the Reuters news service. Photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen, 22, and driver Saeed Chmagh, 40, were killed in what a preliminary Iraqi police report described as a "random American bombardment," Reuters reported. The U.S. military said it has opened an investigation into the killings.
When U.S. soldiers arrived at the scene, they found the children in the minivan along with at least one adult.
"When we first went through, we saw the little girl," said Lt. Josh Hunsucker, one of the first soldiers to arrive. "The little boy, he was slumped down. We all thought he was dead. But then we saw him move."
An officer who saw a medical report about the children said they were injured by shrapnel from the Apache strafing. The girl was wounded in the stomach and the boy in the lower chest. Both were said to be in stable condition.
Soldiers found at least six other bodies, all of adult men, on the ground near the children. Four were in a sitting position and two were face down on the ground, soldiers said. A camera believed to belong to the Reuters photographer lay nearby. It was unclear whether the journalists had been killed by U.S. fire or by shooting from the Iraqis targeted by the Apache.
"We pulled up and stopped, and I could hear them over the intercom say they couldn't drive the Bradleys in because there were too many bodies and didn't want to drive over them," said Capt. James Hall, a chaplain with the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division, who arrived on the scene a few minutes after the shootings.
American soldiers recovered two cameras from the site, but they were being processed by the military Thursday night and the pictures they contained were unavailable for review by a Washington Post reporter with the soldiers.
The Apache crew fired because militants "were endangering the stability of Iraq" and because they had positive identification that the militants "had weapons and were using them against coalition and Iraqi security forces," said Maj. Brent Cummings, the battalion's executive officer. "No innocent civilians were killed on our part deliberately. We took great pains to prevent that. I know that two children were hurt, and we did everything we could to help them. I don't know how the children were hurt."
Thirteen people were detained during the operation, the U.S. military said in a statement.
Also Thursday, the U.S. military said an American soldier had died in fighting east of Baghdad. No other details were available.
Gunmen near Tikrit attacked a police checkpoint with machine guns and killed four policemen and wounded four others, said Maj. Mohammed al-Doori, of al-Door police station. The initial clashes lasted half an hour, then gunmen took the four policemen into a room near the checkpoint and executed them, he said.
Iraqi police said Thursday that patrols had found 16 unidentified corpses on the streets of Baghdad in the previous 24 hours.
Other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.