WASHINGTON_ U.S. military investigators have concluded that there's no credible evidence to back up claims that U.S. troops killed as many as 13 Iraqi civilians during a raid on a suspected al-Qaida hideout in March, military officials said Friday.
Maj. Gen. William Caldwell IV, spokesman for Multi-National Force-Iraq, said in a statement issued from Baghdad that U.S. forces killed one suspected terrorist and captured another during the March 15 raid in the village of Ishaqi, about 60 miles north of Baghdad.
Allegations that U.S. forces executed a family during the raid, then covered it up by directing an airstrike on their house "are absolutely false," Caldwell said.
After the raid, Iraqi police accused U.S. troops of herding at least 11 people into the house and executing them.
"The investigation revealed the ground force commander, while capturing and killing terrorists, operated in accordance with the rules of engagement governing our combat forces in Iraq," Caldwell said.
The incident is one of at least three in which U.S. troops are alleged to have deliberately killed Iraqi civilians, but it's the first in which military officials have announced any conclusive results. Some Marines are under investigation for allegedly killing as many as 24 people after a bomb explosion in the town of Haditha on Nov. 19. Another group of Marines is being investigated in the death of an Iraqi man in the town of Al Hamdania, outside of Baghdad.
Western Iraq and the area around Ishaqi in north-central Iraq have seen considerable fighting in the last three years between U.S. forces and insurgents.
Caldwell said U.S. troops began taking fire from a house as they arrived in the area. U.S. forces returned fire, but as firing from the house persisted, they called in helicopters and finally an airstrike, "ultimately eliminating the threat," he said.
"The investigating officer ascertained that the ground force commander properly followed the rules of engagement as he necessarily escalated the use of force until the threat was eliminated," Caldwell said.
During the raid, U.S. troops captured Ahmad Abdallah Muhammad Na'is al-Utaybi, also known as Hamza, a suspected al-Qaida cell leader born in Kuwait. They killed Uday Faris al Tawafi, aka Abu Ahmed, an Iraqi bomb maker and insurgent recruiter, Caldwell said.
U.S. troops found the body of Abu Ahmed after the airstrike, plus those of three civilians, Caldwell said. The investigator concluded that as many as nine other people died in the airstrike, but a precise number couldn't be determined because the walls of the house had collapsed, leaving heavy debris.
Caldwell said the investigation was carried out the day after claims arose that U.S. troops had killed the civilians.
Iraqis interviewed in Ishaqi by Knight Ridder immediately after the raid acknowledged that an al-Qaida member was visiting the house. They said he was visiting the house's owner, a relative who was a local schoolteacher.
While accusations that U.S. troops kill civilians are fairly common in Iraq, the Ishaqi incident stood out because the claims of civilian deaths originated with Iraqi police.
In a report filed after the raid, Iraqi police said U.S. troops herded at least 11 people into the house and executed them. Those killed included a 75-year-old woman and a 6-month-old infant, the police report said, a copy of which was obtained by Knight Ridder about three days after the raid.
But inconsistencies in the police's claims soon appeared. The officer investigating the case initially claimed that each of the dead had been handcuffed and shot once in the head. But reports of the medical examinations of the bodies showed that each bore multiple wounds.
Partly because of the inconsistencies, an initial inquiry by U.S. military officials never developed into a formal criminal investigation, according to a defense official familiar with some of the investigation's initial findings.
"There were too many inconsistencies," said the official, who asked not to be named since those findings hadn't been released. "It didn't all add up."
Relatives of the deceased said Friday that the U.S. investigation was cursory at best. They said a U.S. officer came and interviewed people once after the raid but never returned.
They said they hadn't received any compensation from U.S. forces, who usually pay survivors as much as $2,500 when Iraqis are killed inadvertently during operations. Relatives of those considered to be combatants, however, aren't paid anything.
"We do not want anything," said Adil Maruf, 27, whose sister-in-law, nephew and niece were killed in the raid. "We just want the American soldiers to be exposed. We do not want it to be repeated again."
(Knight Ridder correspondent Nancy A. Youssef in Baghdad contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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