After the Shooting, Another Showdown

"I hate the Americans," said Sufian Neda, 9, who was wounded when U.S. troops and insurgents traded gunfire near Baghdad. (By Ernesto Londoño -- The Washington Post)
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By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 25, 2009

ABU GHRAIB, Iraq -- When insurgents attacked an American convoy with AK-47 rounds and a couple of grenades on a dusty highway in a Baghdad suburb this week, U.S. soldiers returned fire, chased the suspects through narrow alleyways and raided houses.

Tuesday's clash killed two Iraqi adults and a 14-year-old and wounded four people, including two children.

When the shooting subsided, another confrontation began. A senior Iraqi army commander who arrived at the scene concluded that the Americans had fired indiscriminately at civilians and ordered his men to take the U.S. soldiers into custody. The U.S. military said the soldiers had acted in self-defense and had sought to avoid civilian casualties; U.S. commanders at the scene persuaded the Iraqis to back down.

The incident, apparently the first time a senior Iraqi commander has sought to detain U.S. soldiers, signals a potential escalation of tensions between U.S. and Iraqi forces trying to find a new equilibrium as Iraq assumes more responsibility for its security.

Both sides have starkly different interpretations of vaguely worded restrictions on the authority and movement of U.S. forces that went into effect more than three weeks ago. Those differences, and the friction they are causing in U.S.-Iraqi military relations, have been sharply underscored by the Abu Ghraib attack, which appears to be the first time U.S. soldiers have used deadly force since the new restrictions were imposed.

Word of the incident quickly spread among U.S. soldiers in Baghdad. Several said it heightened concerns that the split-second decisions they make now have the potential to draw a sharp rebuke from Iraq's increasingly assertive security forces. And reaction from Iraqi military officials seemed to confirm those fears.

"What happened is a crime," the Iraqi commander said Friday during a brief interview in his office. "Civilians were killed."

The commander and a senior Iraqi police official, who also characterized the American response as a "crime," spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing ministry regulations that bar them from speaking to the news media without written approval.

Maj. David Shoupe, a U.S. military spokesman, said the two slain men were assailants.

"The response of the [U.S.] patrol was within the rules of engagement, appropriate and proportionate to the attack on them," Shoupe said in an e-mail. "It is important to note that the patrol used aimed fire to kill their two attackers -- stopping the attack that could have resulted in many more [U.S.] and Iraqi deaths."

Hospital and police officials said the two wounded children were 9 and 12.

Conflicting accounts of attacks involving U.S. forces in Iraq are common, and versions are often skewed by how the troops are viewed in the area.

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