U.S. denies civilians were targets in raid


WASHINGTON -- Senior Defense officials pushed back yesterday against the latest accusations of wrongdoing, denying accounts that U.S. soldiers deliberately killed civilians in a March raid but acknowledging that more civilians might have died than the military first reported.

Iraqi police and other witnesses had claimed that U.S. forces had killed as many as 13 civilians in the small hamlet of Ishaqi, near the Iraqi city of Balad, tying up some and shooting them in the head. Video obtained by the British Broadcasting Corp. and the Associated Press showed bodies of victims, including several children, who apparently had been killed by gunshot wounds or shrapnel.

The U.S. military initially reported that there were four people, one insurgent and three civilians, killed in the Ishaqi raid. But yesterday, they acknowledged that eight other noncombatants had been killed, calling the additional casualties "collateral deaths."

It is not clear when the inquiry turned up the other civilian deaths. A military spokesman in Baghdad said that the "timetable of the investigation is not up for discussion."

The new questions about the military's account followed other allegations of misconduct by U.S. troops. In one, a squad of Marines apparently killed two dozen unarmed Iraqi civilians in Haditha last November.

The New York Times reported yesterday that Marine commanders in Iraq learned within two days of the killings in Haditha that Iraqi civilians had died from gunfire, not a roadside bomb as initially reported, but the officers involved saw no reason to investigate further, according to a senior Marine officer.

The handling of the episode by the senior Marine commanders in Haditha, and whether officers and enlisted personnel tried to cover up what happened or missed signs suggesting that the civilian killings were not accidental, has become a major element of the investigation by an Army general into the entire episode.

Officials have said that the investigation, while not yet complete, is likely to conclude that a small group of Marines carried out the unprovoked killings of two dozen civilians in the hours after a makeshift bomb killed a Marine.

A senior Marine general familiar with the investigation, which is being led by Maj. Gen. Eldon Bargewell of the Army, said in an interview that it had not yet established how high up the chain of command any culpability for the killings extended. But he said there are strong suspicions that some officers knew that the Marine squad's version of events had enough holes and discrepancies that it should have been looked into more thoroughly.

In another incident, a group of Marines could face murder charges in the death of a civilian in Hamandiya in April and other charges for possibly attempting to cover up the killing.

The incidents have prompted concern within the military that the U.S. public will see a pattern of excessive violence, lack of discipline and criminal acts.

Trying to head off another controversy, military officials denied that the incident at Ishaqi bore any relationship to Haditha.

The military acknowledges that something went wrong in Haditha. But military officials took pains yesterday to show that they had thoroughly investigated the Ishaqi raid. "Temptation exists to lump all these incidents together," Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV said in a statement. "However, each case needs to be examined individually."

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, speaking in Singapore, 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."

Regarding the Ishaqi incident, a senior Pentagon official said yesterday that the military's investigation - which began soon after the incident - showed that the civilians were killed in a crossfire between American forces and members of terrorist leader Abu Musab Zarqawi's organization.

In his statement, Caldwell said the raid targeted a building where a Kuwaiti-born al-Qaida cell leader, named Ahmad Abdallah Muhammed Na'is Al-Utabi, and a bomb maker, named Uday Faris al-Tawafi, were located.

The initial raid was conducted by ground forces, and Caldwell said when they arrived at the building they began taking fire.

"Individuals started shooting from the house, and troops returned fire," the defense official said.

Caldwell said the ground forces called for support first from helicopters and then from "close air support." Officials said that support was from an AC-130, a powerful gunship often used by Air Force Special Operations forces.

Cannons of the AC-130 leveled the building that suspected insurgents were firing from.

The raid killed Al-Utabi, the cell leader who was also called Hamza, and the American troops captured al-Tawafi, the bomb maker who was known as Abu Ahmed, Caldwell said.

In addition to Al-Utabi's body, the attack force found the bodies of two women and a child at the scene of the collapsed building.

The investigation that followed concluded that nine more noncombatants were killed, said a military official in Iraq. Those bodies were apparently hidden by debris of the collapsed building, and the tactical team had not realized they were killed in the fighting, another official said.

The investigation showed that the commander of the ground force followed the rules, Caldwell said in his statement.

Some initial reports from the military suggested the civilians were killed by the collapsing house. The BBC reported that a videotape provided to them by a hard-line Sunni group showed the bodies of adults and children who had been killed by gunfire.

Julian E. Barnes writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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