BAGHDAD (Reuters) - U.S. forces said they had killed 25 suspected insurgents in operations targeting al Qaeda militants near the capital, but Sunni Arab tribal leaders accused them on Thursday of killing pro-U.S. fighters.
The head of a Sunni Arab tribal group that has turned against al Qaeda and joined forces with the U.S. military told Reuters U.S. aircraft had bombed his men late on Tuesday night, killing 45, as they manned checkpoints just north of Baghdad.
U.S. forces have formed alliances with Sunni Arab tribes in western Iraq and in provinces around Baghdad, offering mostly paid employment to nearly 70,000 tribal fighters and former insurgents as part of its strategy to combat al Qaeda.
The U.S. military said it launched an operation late on Tuesday targeting suspected associates of senior al Qaeda leaders in Tarmiya, which is close to Taji. Troops backed by aircraft killed 25 gunmen, it said.
“Coalition forces observed several armed men in the target area and, perceiving hostile intent, called for supporting aircraft to engage,” it said in a statement.
It did not say whether the gunmen had fired on the soldiers, but U.S. military spokesman Major Winfield Danielson said troops had engaged a “hostile force” and that three weapons caches had been found in the area containing anti-aircraft weapons and surface-to-surface missiles.
The head of the Taji “Awakening Council”, which is aligned to U.S. forces, Sheikh Jassem, said the weapons belonged to the Islamic Army. Elements of the nationalist Sunni insurgent group have recently begun to work alongside the U.S. military to fight al Qaeda.
“Yes there were anti-aircraft weapons, but they belonged to the Islamic Army, who have made a deal with the Americans to keep them to hit al Qaeda,” Jassem said.
He said the U.S. assault on his men began late on Tuesday night in the al-Nebaei area near Taji and lasted about 12 hours.
“The Americans in Taji are our friends. If the attack was a mistake, we just want to know the reasons. If they attacked us deliberately, then we will decide what to do,” Jassem said.
The U.S. military’s use of airpower to attack groups of suspected militants has been under the spotlight in recent weeks after a number of incidents in which civilians were killed.
Fifteen women and children were killed in airstrikes on a suspected meeting of senior al Qaeda leaders in the Lake Thar Thar region northwest of Baghdad in October.
Militant attacks in Baghdad and elsewhere have gradually declined since deployment of an additional 30,000 U.S. soldiers to Iraq, part of a strategy to drag Iraq back from the brink of sectarian civil war, was completed in mid-June.
U.S. Major-General James Simmons told reporters in Baghdad that one sign of the improved security in Iraq was the number of roadside bombs, which had almost halved in the past seven months, a development he attributed to assurances from Iran that it would stop the flow of such bombs into Iraq.
Simmons said the number of improvised explosive device events across Iraq were 1,560 in October, compared with 3,239 in March. “Events” refers to bombs which either detonated or were found before they went off.
Car bombs have been more difficult to stop. In the northern oil-producing city of Kirkuk, a car bomb targeting a police convoy killed six people, including one policeman, police said. They said 17 people, including children on their way to school, were wounded.
While security has improved, Iraq’s leaders have made little progress at the national level in healing deep divisions between majority Shi‘ites and minority Sunni Arabs who were dominant under Saddam Hussein.
U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker said on Thursday he hoped parliament would soon pass a draft law that would ease curbs on former members of Saddam’s Baath party joining the civil service and military. The government said on Wednesday it had presented the bill to parliament.
Additional reporting by Dean Yates and Missy Ryan in Baghdad; editing by Elizabeth Piper