By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 16, 2008
BAGHDAD, Feb. 15 -- Residents and officials in a rural area of northern Iraq said U.S. forces on Thursday night killed six relatives of the head of a Sunni tribal group that has allied itself with the Americans, but the U.S. military said it had received no reports of such an incident.
In the Zaab area, west of Kirkuk, hundreds of people took to the streets to mourn the dead, who included a woman and a child, and to demand that U.S. forces release the tribal leader, who local officials say was detained in the assault.
"There was a great mistake that took place last night and pushed the American forces to commit a massacre against this family, which supported the security and the stability and was a victim of the terrorists," said Col. Muhammad Muhsin Jumaa al-Jubouri, the Zaab police chief.
The incident was one of several in recent days in which American forces may have inadvertently killed civilians and U.S.-backed tribesmen. The episodes illustrate the murky line between friend and foe in Iraq and the difficulty of carrying out precise raids on suspected targets.
The U.S. military said it led an assault in the Sharqat area of northern Iraq late Wednesday and early Thursday in which six insurgents, two of them women, were killed. The military said it was investigating claims that some of the 15 people detained in the operation were members of mainly Sunni U.S.-backed groups, known as Awakening councils of "concerned local citizens," that have turned against the insurgency.
And early Friday, the military said, it responded to small-arms fire near the town of Jurf al-Sukr, south of Baghdad, by shooting rockets at a building. U.S. officials said they were investigating reports that members of the concerned local citizens groups had been killed in the incident.
According to officials and witness accounts, the attack in Zaab took place after 10 p.m. Thursday when the U.S. military began an operation nearby with air support from four helicopters. Hemood al-Sabiel, a resident who sobbed as he described the assault, said U.S. troops entered the area after one of their helicopters came under attack.
When Latifa Abdullah al-Sabiel, 33, went outside to wash dishes, an American soldier shot and killed her, he and other witnesses said. When Sabiel's 11-year-old daughter ran out after her, she was killed, too, they said.
Then two men, Ajeel Shafiq and Falah Abdullah, 28, the brother of the tribal leader, went out with guns but were also shot, witnesses said. Jafar Najeeb, 23, their cousin and a member of the Awakening, ran out with a gun and began shooting at the source of the gunfire, the witnesses said.
"He thought that it was al-Qaeda attacking them, and he did not know that they were American soldiers because he did not see them," Sabiel said.
U.S. forces detained the head of the local 700-person Awakening group, Isa Muhsin al-Sabiel, who is also the leader of the Baghzawi tribe, local officials said.
Muhammad Khaliel al-Jubouri, a member of the provincial council, demanded that the Americans apologize and release the tribal leader. "How are we going to have a political and security role in the future to fight the terrorism and the sectarianism while our people get killed at the hands of the alliance and our friends?" he said.
Sgt. Nicole Dykstra said the U.S. military had no record of the assault. "The only engagement in the entire Kirkuk province were the 6 terrorists killed" Wednesday evening near Sharqat, she wrote in an e-mail.
Meanwhile, in the northern city of Tall Afar, at least three people were killed and 16 wounded in a double suicide bombing, local officials said.
After a police officer guarding a mosque prevented the bomber from entering the building, the attacker tried to throw a hand grenade and then detonated the explosive vest he was wearing, according to Brig. Gen. Najim Abdullah, the mayor of Tall Afar.
A few minutes later, another bomber ran toward a group of worshipers and blew himself up as police opened fire, Abdullah said.
Special correspondents Naseer Nouri in Baghdad, Dlovan Brwari in Mosul, Muhanned Saif Aldin in Tikrit and other Washington Post staff in the Zaab area contributed to this report.