By Ernesto Londoño and Zaid Sabah
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 27, 2009
BAGHDAD, April 26 -- Iraq's prime minister on Sunday denounced a predawn American raid in southern Iraq during which two Iraqis were killed, saying his government intends to prosecute U.S. soldiers who carried out the operation.
The incident marked the first time Iraq's government has called for the prosecution of U.S. soldiers and sets the stage for a showdown between the two countries at a time when sectarian violence appears to be spiking.
Since the implementation this year of a bilateral security agreement, U.S. forces have been barred from conducting unilateral operations and can no longer detain Iraqis for long periods. The agreement says American forces can be prosecuted in Iraqi courtrooms for grave, premeditated crimes committed off base and off duty -- criteria that U.S. officials have said effectively means American soldiers will never face Iraqi justice.
But the language of the agreement is vague, U.S. and Iraqi officials have said, which could make this a test case. If that happens, it may become an irritant in U.S.-Iraqi relations and could exacerbate hostility toward American soldiers at a time when extremists are vowing to step up attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq. American officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, suggested Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's move could be politically motivated. National elections are to be held next winter.
In a statement issued by the Iraqi government's Baghdad security command, which reports to the prime minister, Maliki called the raid "a violation of the security agreement." He demanded the immediate release of the six men U.S. forces took into custody after the raid and said he would ask the top U.S. commander in Iraq to "send those who carried out this action to the judiciary."
The U.S. military earlier in the day said the raid had been "fully coordinated and approved" by the Iraqi government. A U.S. military spokesman would not say who in the Iraqi government approved the raid or whether Iraqi security forces were present.
The raid targeted Shiite militiamen who belong to an elite unit created by anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to carry out attacks against U.S. forces, the American military said.
Hours after the raid, as protesters gathered in downtown Kut, which is 100 miles southeast of Baghdad, the Iraqi Defense Ministry announced it had detained two top Iraqi military officials in Wasit province for authorizing the American raid without obtaining approval from their commanders.
The raid began about 1:30 a.m., when U.S. convoys pulled up outside the house of Capt. Muaamer Abid Naama al-Bidyree, who is assigned to the Interior Ministry's internal affairs office, relatives said. Bidyree was not home at the time, they said. While American soldiers were searching the house, which is split into several apartments occupied by members of an extended family, Bidyree's wife began screaming.
"The wife was alone in the house," said Um Amar, 50, a relative who lives there. "She started yelling: 'Americans, Americans!' "
Bidyree's brother Khalid, who was armed, and one of Bidyree's sisters-in-law, Nedal Abolabas, then headed toward Bidyree's residence. American soldiers opened fire, striking Khalid in the head, and Abolabas in the chest, Um Amar said.
In a statement, the U.S. military said soldiers opened fire on a man because "forces assessed him to be hostile." They did not elaborate. The woman, the statement said, "moved into the line of fire and was also struck by gunfire."
The military said soldiers suspected members of the Promise Day Brigade, the elite Sadr militia, were in the house. The prime suspect was a "network financier" suspected of smuggling weapons into Iraq.
Kut, a predominantly Shiite city, has been relatively peaceful in recent years. Brig. Raed Shakir Jodet, the city's police commander, and Mahmoud al-Etaibi, the chairman of the provincial council, held a news conference Sunday condemning the operation and demanding that Maliki launch an investigation.
"American forces should apologize and compensate the families of the victims and release the detainees," Etaibi said.
Um Amar said top American military officials visited her home Sunday afternoon to offer an apology and return cash and cellphones that soldiers confiscated during the raid.
"They said it was a mistake," she said, bawling during a telephone interview. "But they couldn't return those who died back to us."
Special correspondents Saad Sarhan in Najaf and Aziz Alwan in Baghdad contributed to this report.