U.S. 'Mistaken Fire' Kills 6 in Iraqi Security Forces

By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 4, 2008

BAGHDAD, Sept. 3 -- U.S. troops mistakenly killed six members of Iraq's security forces Monday, Iraqi officials said, further straining relations between the U.S. military and the Iraqis they are paying to secure the country.

The pre-dawn confusion in Mizrafa, a stretch of farmland along the Tigris River north of Baghdad, claimed the lives of two Iraqi police officers and four members of the "Awakening" force, a group of mostly Sunni fighters who work with the U.S. military, said Iraqi army Maj. Mohammed Younis.

A U.S. military spokeswoman said the shooting was under review. "It is always regrettable when incidents of mistaken fire occur on the battlefield," Staff Sgt. Stephanie Boy wrote in an e-mail.

The incident took place when U.S. troops aboard a boat on the Tigris approached a patrol of Awakening fighters. The fighters were already on high alert because a suicide bomber had attacked the leader of the local group in nearby Tarmiyah, killing one person and wounding four.

"They heard a rumor that al-Qaeda was going to stage an offensive against their town from the river," Younis said, referring to the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq. "They deployed themselves along the river waiting to ambush al-Qaeda if they started to attack."

When the boat approached, the Awakening fighters fired warning shots because they could not determine whether the vessel was manned by Americans, Younis said. He said the troops on the boat did not shoot back, but an Apache helicopter later opened fire on the Iraqis, killing the police officers and Awakening members and wounding 10 Iraqis.

U.S. forces were in the area conducting operations against al-Qaeda in Iraq, Boy said. She confirmed that the operations involved aircraft but declined to specify the number of Iraqi casualties.

The incident is the latest in a string of accidental attacks by U.S. forces on the Awakening fighters, who are widely credited with helping reduce violence over the past year. The incident in Mizrafa enraged local Awakening members, leading at least 10 of them to quit.

"We don't feel safe working with the Awakening anymore because of the American forces," said Ali Younis, 18, who quit and turned in his weapon Wednesday.

The shooting comes at a delicate time in negotiations between Iraq and the United States over a security pact governing the presence of American troops in the country. Iraqi officials say both sides have agreed that American forces will withdraw by the end of 2011, with the key disagreement centering on whether the U.S. troops will be immune from prosecution under Iraqi law.

U.S. negotiators have demanded complete immunity for the troops; the Iraqis counter that the immunity should apply only on American bases and on missions approved by the Iraqi government, according to Sami al-Askari, a prominent Shiite lawmaker.

In other developments, the Iraqi cabinet this week voted to reopen the notorious Abu Ghraib prison as a facility for holding criminals, with part of it set aside as "a museum of the former regime's crimes," according to a statement from government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh.

Located on the western edge of Baghdad, the facility was once used to torture and execute enemies of Saddam Hussein and then became the site of the U.S. prisoner abuse scandal. The museum will be divided into two parts: one devoted to crimes under Hussein and the other focused on abuses by U.S. troops, said Ali al-Obeidy, the head of the prisons section in the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs.

Washington Post staff in Tarmiyah and Fallujah contributed to this report.

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