U.S. forces acknowledged killing three women during a raid on a house of suspected insurgents Friday, but Iraqis said eight people had died, all members of a family with no ties to the violence in their country.
The incident is likely to heighten Iraqi demands that U.S. forces be subject to Iraqi prosecution for alleged crimes or mistakes that harm civilians. The demand has emerged as the key issue blocking agreement on a plan that would govern activities of American forces in Iraq after Dec. 31.
Immunity has been a hot-button issue since September 2007, when 17 Iraqis were killed by guards working for Blackwater Worldwide, the North Carolina company that protects State Department employees. Although Blackwater guards are not military personnel, many Iraqis said the incident underscored the need to hold Americans liable for behavior that harms innocent Iraqis.
A U.S. military statement said the shootings occurred in Ad Dawr, about 70 miles northwest of Baghdad, as American forces pursued a suspected member of the insurgent group Al Qaeda in Iraq. The man was believed to operate a network responsible for suicide bombings and to have been an associate of the group’s emir in a neighboring province.
After arriving at the suspect’s house, the statement said, soldiers circled the building and called on the occupants to surrender. After about an hour, “an armed man appeared in the doorway.” He was shot dead and later determined to be the suspected insurgent, the statement said.
Helicopters called in to support the ground troops killed three other “terrorist suspects,” and three women were also killed, the military said. It said U.S. forces took a wounded child to a nearby base for medical care.
Iraqis gave a different account.
A police official in Ad Dawr said three women and five men, all members of the family of Ali Hassan Ali, were killed during a 2 a.m. raid.
Khalil Mohammed Douri, who lives nearby, said he was sleeping on his roof because of the stifling heat when he was awakened by helicopters. He heard American forces using loudspeakers to tell the occupants of a house about 300 feet away to come outside.
“Suddenly I saw a woman and a man leaving the house. I saw the Americans opening fire at them and killing them,” Douri said. He said the house was then destroyed by weapons fire from above.
Douri confirmed that a child was taken from the scene. He agreed with the police officials that eight people died.
A tribal sheik, Faris Faddam, said the family had been displaced by sectarian fighting in Baghdad and was renting the house in Ad Dawr.
“The family has no political, military or hostile tendencies,” he said.
The U.S. statement, however, said the presence of women and children in the house was a tactic used by insurgents to provide cover for themselves.
“Sadly, this incident again shows that the . . . terrorists repeatedly risk the lives of innocent women and children to further their evil work,” said a military spokesman, Col. Jerry O’Hara.
In his hardest-hitting comments yet on the so-called status of forces agreement, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki said late Wednesday that the United States could be forced to operate illegally in Iraq if an agreement was not reached. He described the immunity issue as a major sticking point.
In comments Thursday in London, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates acknowledged that it was an issue.
Under Iraq’s proposal, all military missions would require the approval of both Iraq and the United States, and if U.S. forces committed “an obvious crime” on a mission, they could be subject to Iraq’s justice system.
The United States wants its soldiers to be immune from Iraqi prosecution.
A special correspondent in Samarra, Iraq, contributed to this report.