BAIJI, Iraq (Reuters) - Iraqi police said on Thursday a U.S. helicopter airstrike killed eight civilians, including two children, but U.S. forces said the six adults killed were militants suspected of links to a bombing network.
News of Wednesday’s incident north of Baghdad broke on a day when the top U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, said he expected to make further troop cuts by September.
The U.S. Senate approved a further $165 billion to wage war in Iraq and Afghanistan for another year after rejecting proposed timetables for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq.
The speed of drawing down the 155,000 U.S. troops in Iraq is a central issue in the November U.S. presidential election.
An Iraqi television station accused U.S. troops of shooting dead one of its cameramen as he walked to his Baghdad home. The U.S. military denied it had killed any civilians in the area.
The body of a second journalist, a reporter for al-Sharq newspaper, was found dumped in a field with nine other corpses in Diyala province, police and colleagues said.
Colonel Mudhher al-Qaisi, police chief in the town of Baiji, north of the capital, said a U.S. helicopter fired at a group of shepherds in a vehicle in a farming area on Wednesday night.
“This is a criminal act. It will make the relations between Iraqi citizens and the U.S. forces tense. This will negatively affect security improvements,” Qaisi told Reuters.
The U.S. military said the incident happened when American soldiers, hunting members of a bombing network, tried to detain the occupants of a vehicle.
“Coalition forces engaged the target vehicle’s occupants, killing five terrorists, after the terrorists exhibited hostile intent and failed to comply with instructions to surrender. Two children in the vehicle were also killed,” it said.
U.S. forces killed another militant nearby after he refused to surrender, a statement said. It did not say if a helicopter was involved.
Reuters pictures showed relatives of the dead standing beside corpses covered by white sheets outside a mosque in Baiji, an oil refining town 180 km (110 miles) north of Baghdad.
“There were two boys, one was eight and the other was 11,” said police Major Ahmed Hussein.
United Nations officials have expressed concern at the number of civilians killed in airstrikes in Iraq.
The U.S. military has been trying to soothe tensions with Baghdad over a U.S. soldier using a copy of the Koran, the Muslim holy book, for target practice.
A protest over the incident turned violent in Afghanistan on Thursday, leading to the death of a Lithuanian soldier and at least two Afghan civilians.
Police said five kidnapped Iraqi soldiers were found shot dead near the northern city of Mosul, where Iraqi security forces have been waging a campaign against al Qaeda.
A roadside bomb exploded as security forces went to investigate the bodies, wounding seven soldiers and two policemen, including a police lieutenant-colonel, police said.
In Washington, Petraeus told a U.S. Senate committee he expected to make further troop cuts after a 45-day freeze in withdrawals that begins in July.
U.S. troop strength in Iraq is due to fall to around 140,000 by July. Democratic presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have pledged to begin bringing U.S. troops home right away. Republican John McCain calls such promises reckless.
Petraeus also said that Iraqi provincial elections, seen as a step forward in Iraq’s political evolution, were now likely to take place in November instead of October.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, striving to impose his government’s authority on Shi’ite militias and Sunni militants, travelled to the holy Shi’ite city of Najaf for talks with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most senior Shi’ite cleric.
Maliki appeared to win an endorsement from Sistani for his drive to bring the country under central control.
Maliki launched an offensive against Shi’ite militias in the southern city of Basra in March and then a push against al Qaeda in Mosul. This week his troops took control of Sadr City, the Baghdad stronghold of Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
British defense Secretary Des Browne visited Basra on Thursday and declared it to be a “transformed city.”
“All around us were the signs of a city returning to normality,” Browne said after going for a walk in Basra and stopping at a cafe for a cup of tea with the commander of Iraqi forces in the city.
Britain handed over responsibility for security in Basra to Iraqi forces last December but still has about 4,000 soldiers based outside the city at Basra airport.
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Additional reporting by Khaled Farhan in Najaf and Aseel Kami, Tim Cocks and Ross Colvin in Baghdad; Writing by Michael Georgy and Adrian Croft; Editing by Giles Elgood