U.S. Airstrike on Village in Diyala Kills at Least 25

A man gestures toward four of those killed in the strike. Some Iraqis reported civilian fatalities; U.S. officials said they believed the dead were all fighters.
A man gestures toward four of those killed in the strike. Some Iraqis reported civilian fatalities; U.S. officials said they believed the dead were all fighters. (By Alaa Al-marjani -- Associated Press)
By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 6, 2007

BAGHDAD, Oct. 5 -- U.S. military aircraft bombarded a Shiite village north of Baghdad on Friday morning as they pursued suspected militiamen, in an attack that killed at least 25 people, according to U.S. military officials.

Some Iraqi reports of the fighting in Diyala province claimed that civilians were killed in the fighting, although U.S. officials said they believed the dead were all combatants. The Associated Press, citing an Iraqi army official, reported that seven children were among those killed.

U.S. troops, believed to be elite Special Forces soldiers, were targeting an individual the military says is involved in transporting weapons from Iran into Baghdad. The individual was suspected to be part of what the military calls "special groups," Shiite militiamen with links to the al-Quds Force of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps. All of the people killed appeared to be Iraqis, a U.S. military spokeswoman said.

In a separate development in Washington on Friday, Iraqi National Security Adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie accused Iran of supplying ever-more sophisticated weapons to militias in Iraq. Rubaie did not provide any evidence for his claims, which are similar to those that have been leveled against Iran by U.S. military officials. Iran has repeatedly denied it is involved in arming, training or funding militants in Iraq.

Also, in an interview with al-Arabiya television released Friday by the White House, President Bush dismissed as "empty propaganda" reports that he is preparing for airstrikes on Iran this January or February. "Evidently there's a lot of gossip in parts of the . . . world that try to scare people about me, personally, or my country, or what we stand for," Bush said. The president repeated his mantra that "all options are on the table" in dealing with Iran's nuclear activities but emphasized his desire to solve the problem diplomatically.

The violence in Diyala began in the morning when U.S. troops took heavy fire from rifles and rocket-propelled grenades in Jayzani al-Imam village, between the city of Baqubah and the Tigris River, the U.S. military said in a statement. Helicopters and jets were called in and destroyed two buildings.

"The best that we can tell right now is that we couldn't assess any civilians killed on the ground. We're not completely sure, to be frank, but we are sure that our troops were engaged and we killed about 25 terrorists," said Maj. Brad Leighton, a U.S. military spokesman in Iraq. Because of security concerns, "we haven't really been able to completely assess" the situation on the ground, he said.

A spokesman for the Diyala province Joint Coordination Center said a leader of the al-Quds Force had visited the village to meet with members of the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia loyal to powerful cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

A man from a nearby village, Mohammed Khadim al-Qaisi, said Jayzani al-Imam is almost entirely a Shiite town and is known to be a haven for militia members.

U.S. soldiers killed an additional 12 suspected insurgents in Iraq on Friday, the military said.

The fighting occurred on a day when three U.S. soldiers were killed in Iraq. Two died, and two others were wounded, when a bomb exploded in southeastern Baghdad. The third was killed, and three more injured, when a bomb blew up in Salahuddin province.

In a meeting with Washington Post reporters and editors, Rubaie, Iraq's national security adviser, asserted that transporting weapons into Iraq is a policy approved by Iran's top officials, including the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Rubaie, a Shiite Muslim who once had close ties to Iran, said the neighboring country supplies militias with surface-to-air missiles, 240mm missiles that can hit targets 25 to 30 miles away, and advanced rocket-propelled grenades known as RPG-29s, an antitank weapon capable of penetrating U.S. armor.

Rubaie said a resumption of a more meaningful U.S.-Iran dialogue is critical to stabilizing Iraq, adding that bilateral diplomacy is moribund for the moment. "We believe that when they stopped engagement in the beginning of August, that's when [Iran] upgraded the arms," he said.

In a talk at the Nixon Center on Wednesday, he said there should be "absolutely no -- big, fat no, N-O -- bombing of Iran" by the United States.

In Diyala province, where the airstrike took place Friday, some U.S. military officials say the Shiite militia presence is waning. Maj. Gen. Benjamin R. Mixon, U.S. commander for northern Iraq, said in a telephone interview late last month that the Mahdi Army and the other Shiite militias in Diyala are "really up against the wall."

"We've killed and captured quite a few of their leaders. . . . We see that influence waning, but it's not over, of course."

Mixon said he has been heartened by the participation of Shiite tribes along with Sunni ones in recent meetings to discuss ways to drive out extremists. But U.S. military officials acknowledge that it has been more difficult to generate the groundswell of local volunteer fighters -- as happened in western Anbar province -- in Diyala, with its more heterogeneous sectarian population. Shiite politicians in Baghdad have recently lashed out at the Americans for those partnerships with tribal fighters, who they claim are abusing Shiites in Baghdad and elsewhere.

A senior U.S. commander who oversees Diyala said some local Sunni volunteers have quit out of frustration at delays in the government's willingness to hire them as police. "They stood up to fight against al-Qaeda. They have been in a tough fight here, shedding blood with their comrades against this despicable enemy, and they have not been compensated for that. They are looking for recognition and they have not seen it yet," Brig. Gen. John Bednarak, deputy commander, Multinational Division North, said in an interview Thursday, referring to insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Bednarak said more than 3,000 primarily Sunni fighters -- including tribal members and former insurgents -- have been vetted, but none have been hired by the Ministry of Interior. Instead, the U.S. military is putting them on temporary 90-day contracts under which they earn less than $300 a month.

Diyala is authorized to have 13,000 police officers, and officials there have requested an increase to 21,000 because of ongoing violence, but the Ministry of Interior has "held up on that for several months," Bednarak said. "They are worried . . . that we are arming civilians that would rise up" against existing security forces. "I don't see that happening," he said.

Staff writers Robin Wright, Ann Scott Tyson, Karen DeYoung and Michael Abramowitz in Washington, special correspondent Salih Dehema in Baghdad, and staff researcher Robert Thomason in Washington contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company