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U.S. Attack Kills American-Allied Fighter in Iraq

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By Ernesto Londoño and Qais Mizher
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 4, 2009

BAGHDAD, April 3 -- An American attack helicopter opened fire Thursday night on members of a U.S.-backed, mainly Sunni paramilitary force because they were spotted placing a roadside bomb near an American base north of Baghdad, the U.S. military said Friday.

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Leaders of the force, known among Iraqis as the Awakening and by American soldiers as the Sons of Iraq, disputed the U.S. account. Salim al-Hatim, a local commander, said American officials apologized Friday for what he said they called an apparent error by an air weapons team. One Awakening fighter was killed and two were wounded, U.S. officials said.

"The Americans are lying when they say the fighters were digging in the area," said Anor Abu Abdullah, who was in charge of the checkpoint. "This is an attempt to kill the Sons of Iraq and destroy this project."

Iraqi and U.S. officials fear that the disintegration of the Awakening groups could help revive the Sunni insurgency and stoke sectarian tension at a time when American forces are reducing their activities in Iraq. The air attack came less than a week after the arrest of an Awakening leader in Baghd ad sparked clashes between his followers and U.S.-backed Iraqi soldiers.

Hatim said five Awakening members were manning a checkpoint 25 miles north of the capital on a main road that connects Baghdad and Mosul when a U.S. helicopter opened fire on them about 8 p.m. Thursday. Abu Abdullah, commander of the checkpoint, said the fighters were wearing Sons of Iraq uniforms.

Col. John Robinson, a U.S. military spokesman, said in an e-mail that the men "were clearly not operating a checkpoint at the time they were engaged" with 33mm rounds fired from an AH-64 Apache helicopter. "Evidence of an IED being emplaced was found and collected at the site on Friday," he added.

Robinson said a U.S. battalion commander attempted to speak with the fighter's leader Friday but did not mention whether an apology was offered.

The U.S. military recently stopped paying Sons of Iraq members, many of whom are former insurgents who were put on the American payroll in 2007 in a high-stakes strategy to quell the insurgency.

Under heavy pressure from the U.S. military, the Shiite-led Iraqi government agreed to assume responsibility for the payments to the predominantly Sunni armed groups and absorb some into its security forces.

But in recent weeks, several Sons of Iraq groups have broken up , and some members have reportedly rejoined the insurgency, saying the government has failed to pay them on time and has been reluctant to admit them into police academies.

The U.S. military said a ground team that went to the site at 9:30 p.m. Thursday found the dead fighter in a rural area.

"While we value our Sons of Iraq brothers, these men had broken faith with their fellow Sons of Iraq, the Iraqi people and us," Maj. Gen. Daniel P. Bolger, the American who oversees the Baghdad command, said in a statement.

The men were fired on near Taji Air Base. The U.S. military said several attacks have been carried out in the area in recent months.

This week, Sons of Iraq guards abandoned 13 checkpoints in the town of Musayab, in Babil province south of Baghdad, because they hadn't been paid in three months, according to Maj. Muthana Ahmed, a spokesman for provincial police.

In a television interview aired Friday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said that he respects the work of the Sons of Iraq but warned that some are infiltrated by insurgent groups.

Correspondent Anthony Shadid contributed to this report.

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