Three neighborhood security guards were killed and two injured early Friday when U.S. attack helicopters fired at their checkpoint south of Baghdad, Iraqi police said.
It was the latest in a series of complaints about errant strikes, which have stoked tensions between the citizen security groups in central and northern Iraq and their American backers.
Mohammed Ghuriari, who heads the so-called Awakening Councils that supply fighters to protect neighborhoods in the north of Babil province, said it was the third U.S.-led strike on their checkpoints in less than two months. He said 19 people had been killed and 14 injured.
“The U.S. forces should learn from their mistakes,” Ghuriari said in a telephone interview. “Such repeated attacks will make the Awakening Councils review their stance in the agreements they signed with the U.S. forces.”
The U.S. military has thus far acknowledged one mistake, a Feb. 2 airstrike that killed nine people, including at least three Awakening members and a child. The soldiers thought that they were targeting insurgents preparing a roadside bomb in a rural area 25 miles southeast of Baghdad, officers said at the time.
In Friday’s incident, the U.S. military said attack helicopters fired rockets at a building near the town of Jarf Sakhr after American troops in the area were attacked with small arms fire.
Maj. Alayne Conway, a military spokeswoman, said she could not confirm further details while the incident was under investigation.
U.S. forces credit the neighborhood groups, which they have dubbed concerned local citizens or Sons of Iraq, with helping to bring down violence by 60% nationwide since June. They pay many of the mostly Sunni Arab fighters about $10 a day to guard roads, bridges and other key infrastructure.
U.S. commanders have asked them to wear special T-shirts and reflective belts to help distinguish them from the insurgents they fight. But the citizen groups, whose members have swelled to more than 80,000 in the last year, complain that there are not enough of the outfits to go around.
U.S. commanders also suspect that insurgents have infiltrated some of the groups, which include many men who used to support or actively serve as members of the Sunni insurgency.
The strike Friday was the second apparent case of mistaken identity in three days. A citizen security group in the northern village of Zab said four of its members were killed when helicopters fired at a house in the area about 20 miles southwest of Kirkuk during raids late Wednesday and early Thursday. Two women were also killed.
The U.S. military said it called in the strike after gunmen fired at troops from the building, and it maintained Friday that the six victims were insurgents.
U.S.-led forces detained 15 suspects that night during raids targeting Sunni insurgents in the area, some of whom they said also claimed to be members of the Awakening Council. Residents described the area as a stronghold of Al Qaeda in Iraq and other Sunni militant groups.
Insurgent attacks against the security groups have increased as their influence has spread.
In Baghdad, a bomb planted in a car carrying U.S.-allied fighters was remotely detonated Friday as it approached one of their checkpoints in the west Baghdad neighborhood of Ghazaliya, police said. Two of the fighters were killed, including the driver, and four were injured.
Prime Minister Nouri Maliki urged Iraqi military and police chiefs to keep their “fingers on the trigger” at a ceremony Friday to thank them for helping to improve security in Baghdad through a year-old crackdown.
He said the campaign, whose launch coincided with the start of a 28,500-strong U.S. troop buildup, had pulled the city from the brink of civil war.
“This year our focus will be reconstruction, economic development and providing services,” he said. “But this doesn’t mean that we should put our ongoing efforts to rest.”
The U.S. military says insurgents driven out of Baghdad and neighboring Anbar province have regrouped in regions to the north.
In Tall Afar, about 240 miles northwest of Baghdad, two suicide bombers attacked worshipers outside a Shiite Muslim mosque Friday, killing at least three people and injuring 16, officials said. The attackers struck during the midday Friday prayers, the most important of the Muslim week.
One of the bombers tried to enter Sheik Jawad Mosque but was stopped by police officers, who pushed the man aside and shot him, said Maj. Gen. Najim Abdullah Jubouri, the city’s mayor. The explosives strapped to the man’s waist detonated outside the gate.
As a crowd gathered, another bomber rushed toward them and was also shot by police, triggering a second blast, Jubouri said.
“It was good that our security forces were able to prevent them from going inside the mosque, otherwise we would have a disaster,” he said by telephone from Tall Afar, where he had just visited the wounded in a hospital.
Times staff writer Raheem Salman in Baghdad, special correspondent Ruaa al-Zarary in Mosul and special correspondents in Baghdad, Hillah and Kirkuk contributed to this report.