U.S. defense officials pushed back Friday against the latest reports claiming military wrongdoing in Iraq, denying accounts that American soldiers had deliberately killed a dozen civilians in a March raid while acknowledging that more noncombatants died than the military first reported.
Iraqi police and other witnesses charged immediately after the March raid that U.S. forces had killed as many as 13 civilians in the hamlet of Ishaqi near the city of Balad, tying up some and shooting them in the head.
The Associated Press said Friday that video shot by one of its cameramen and broadcast by the British Broadcasting Corp. this week showed some bodies, including those of several children, with deep head wounds that the AP said could have been caused by bullets or shrapnel.
The U.S. military initially reported that four people, a suspected insurgent and three civilians, were killed in the March 15 raid. But Friday, officials acknowledged that nine other noncombatants had been killed, calling the additional casualties “collateral deaths.”
It is unclear when the other civilian deaths were discovered, and a military spokesman in Baghdad said that the “timetable of the investigation is not up for discussion.”
The investigation cleared the U.S. troops of wrongdoing in the Ishaqi operation, and the report said the commander had increased firepower appropriately to respond to hostile fire.
The military has been circumspect about precisely which forces were involved in the operation. But the raid bears the hallmarks of a Special Forces mission, and an Army official confirmed that special operations forces were involved.
The new questions about the military’s account arose this week in the wake of other allegations of misconduct by U.S. troops. In one, a squad of Marines is suspected of killing two dozen unarmed Iraqi civilians in November in Haditha, an incident under investigation both for the troops’ actions as well as the way in which it was handled by the Marine Corps, which has been accused of a coverup.
In another incident, a group of Marines and a Navy corpsman could face charges in the April death of a civilian in Hamandiya, including murder and other counts involving a possible attempt to cover up the killing.
The developments have prompted concern within the military that the American public will see a pattern of excessive violence, lack of discipline and criminal acts.
Military officials vehemently denied that the incident at Ishaqi bore any similarity to the one at Haditha.
“Nothing suggests anything happened close to Haditha,” a senior defense official said.
The military acknowledges that something went wrong in Haditha, both with the killings and the failure to quickly investigate. But officials believe the incident was an aberration, and they took pains Friday to show they had thoroughly investigated the Ishaqi raid.
“Temptation exists to lump all these incidents together,” Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, a military spokesman in Iraq, said in a written statement. “However, each case needs to be examined individually.”
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, speaking in Singapore on the first stop of a trip to Asia and Europe, faced questions about the allegations of misconduct, but spoke carefully to avoid prejudicing any investigation.
“In conflict, things that shouldn’t happen do happen,” Rumsfeld said. “We don’t expect U.S. soldiers to act that way and they’re trained not to.”
The controversial civilian deaths brought expressions of anger this week from Iraqi officials, including Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, who called Friday for new ways to minimize harm to Iraqi civilians. White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said President Bush shared Maliki’s concerns.
“I am sure that the prime minister is every bit as troubled by the allegations as the president of the United States is,” Snow said.
Earlier, Snow said that the president and his aides were taking care not to speak about the incidents in a way that might prejudice the investigations or eventual legal cases.
“We owe it to ourselves to figure out what the facts are,” Snow said.
Mohammed Salih Mohammed, a 35-year-old neighbor of some of those killed in Ishaqi, told The Times in March that innocent civilians were killed. “At 5 a.m., we went to the house and saw the family members were hand-tied and shot in the head,” he said. “Even their cows died.”
A senior Pentagon official said Friday that the military’s investigation, which began soon after the Ishaqi incident, found that the civilians were killed in crossfire between American forces and members of Abu Musab Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda in Iraq organization.
In his statement, Caldwell said the raid was launched against a house used by a Kuwaiti-born Al Qaeda cell leader, Ahmad Abdallah Mohammed Nais Utaybi, and a bomb maker, Uday Faris Tawafi.
Caldwell said that ground forces were fired on when they arrived at the house. They called in helicopters and then “close air support.”
Officials said that support came from an AC-130, a powerful gunship often used by Air Force Special Operations personnel.
The side cannons of the AC-130 leveled the house that suspected insurgents were firing from.
The raid killed Utaybi, the cell leader who was also called Hamza. The troops also captured Tawafi, the bomb maker also known as Abu Ahmed, Caldwell said.
In addition to Utaybi’s body, the Americans found the bodies of two women and a child at the collapsed house.
The investigation concluded that nine additional noncombatants were killed, said a military official in Iraq.
Those bodies were apparently hidden by the debris of the collapsed house, and the tactical team had not realized that they were killed in the fighting, another official said.
Some initial reports from the military suggested the civilians were killed by the collapse of the house.
The BBC reported that a videotape provided by a hard-line Sunni group showed the bodies of adults and children who had been killed by gunshot wounds.
Associated Press photographs showed a number of bodies after the attack, several of them children, apparently wrapped in blankets in the back of a truck.
Of the 12 civilians presumed killed, investigators could not determine how many had died of gunshot wounds and how many died when the house collapsed. But the military insisted that none were killed deliberately.
“Allegations that the troops executed a family living in this safe house, and then hid the alleged crimes by directing an airstrike, are absolutely false,” Caldwell said.
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Incidents involving civilians
The U.S. military is investigating cases in which forces are accused of killing civilians in Iraq under questionable circumstances. On Friday, troops were cleared of charges in the incident in Ishaqi.Mosul
Date: Nov. 19, 2005
Incident: Civilians slain after a roadside bombing killed a Marine.
Date: March 15, 2006
Incident: One suspected insurgent and 12 civilians slain during a U.S. raid. The U.S. military says the civilian deaths were accidental, Iraqi police say they were deliberate.
Date: April 26, 2006
Incident: After a civilian was killed, there were indications that evidence may have been planted to suggest he was an insurgent.
*Troops cleared of charges
Source: Times reporting
Times staff writers Peter Spiegel in Singapore and James Gerstenzang in Washington contributed to this report.