A U.S. military boat patrolling the Tigris River in the dark drew fire Wednesday from Iraqi security forces who mistook it for the enemy, sparking a deadly gun battle that killed seven Iraqis and prompted local anger over American use of firepower against friendly forces.
Iraqi officials said three soldiers, two police officers and two paramilitary fighters known as Sons of Iraq and allied with U.S. and Iraqi forces were killed in the clash in Tarmiya.
The U.S. military confirmed only “an incident involving weapons fire” and said reports indicated that Iraqi security forces had sustained casualties.
“It is always regrettable when incidents of mistaken fire occur,” it said in a brief statement, adding that a review of the incident was underway.
A police officer in Tarmiya, 37 miles north of Baghdad, said the U.S. boat was moving without its lights on, raising suspicions among Iraqis at a fixed checkpoint on a bridge spanning the river.
The area is known for Sunni Muslim insurgent activity. On Monday, a teenage suicide bomber tried to kill a Tarmiya city official whose father is a tribal leader and a chief backer of the local Sons of Iraq. The target of the assassination attempt, Emad Jassim, was critically injured.
Wednesday’s deaths were likely to rev up debate among Iraq’s leaders about the issue of immunity for U.S. forces in this country. Though soldiers are immune from prosecution for incidents that occur on combat missions or that are deemed not the result of negligence or wrongdoing, friendly fire incidents invariably arouse anger among Iraqis who feel that American forces don’t do enough to prevent such mistakes.
The immunity question has figured prominently in negotiations between the United States and Iraq over a deal that would allow U.S. troops to stay in the country after this year. The Iraqis are proposing that the Americans retain immunity on their bases and on combat missions authorized by the Iraqi government. But they would be brought before an Iraqi court in other circumstances, Iraqi officials said.
“Iraq cannot be expected to undervalue the lives of the Iraqis to give immunity to American soldiers working here in Iraq,” Sheik Jalaluddin Saghir, a senior Shiite Muslim lawmaker, told The Times in an interview last weekend.
A member of the Iraqi army in Tarmiya said it was “unbelievable” that the Americans would not have known there was an Iraqi security force checkpoint at the bridge, which sits at a strategic location.
“We were thinking that they were armed groups using boats in order to attack us, and we opened fire to defend ourselves,” said the soldier, who identified himself only as Abu Ali. “The American forces could have identified themselves before or after the incident through turning the boat lights on or making a certain noise. However, that didn’t happen and instead we were faced with heavy and deadly fire.”
Another Tarmiya police officer, who asked to be identified as Abu Ahmed, also said the checkpoint should have been known to the Americans.
There have been several Sons of Iraq fighters killed by U.S. forces in the last year, frequently because they were mistaken for insurgents while on missions or at checkpoints. The American military says the Sons of Iraq would be secure if they did not stray from their assigned checkpoints and if they wore the reflective vests identifying them as friendly forces. But in the field, there are no communications between U.S. patrols and their Iraqi counterparts, and most mistaken shootings occur at night.
Aware of the problem, at one location south of Baghdad, U.S. forces have spray-painted a Sunni paramilitary checkpoint with the words: “Don’t shoot Sons of Iraq.”
Abu Hudayfa, a Sons of Iraq member in Tarmiya, said much more was needed to protect the mainly Sunni fighters who each earn about $300 a month working alongside U.S. and Iraqi forces. He called for compensation to the victims’ families to be given immediately, and for the soldiers involved to be held accountable.
Times staff writer Saif Hameed and a special correspondent in Taji contributed to this report.