BAGHDAD — The lack of direct communication between the U.S. military and its militia allies may have contributed to an American helicopter attack Saturday that killed at least nine Iraqi civilians in the worst incident of mistaken fire in at least two months.
The U.S. military acknowledged in a statement released Monday that the deaths at the town of Iskandriyah, about 30 miles south of Baghdad, had been a mistake. A local Iraqi police spokesman put the death toll at 13 and said the casualties included two women and a child.
Three people, including two children, were wounded, the U.S. statement said. They were taken to American military hospitals for treatment.
A spokesman for the leader of the U.S.-allied militia, Mohammed al Ghurayiriya, said the incident probably was a case of poor communication. He said the militiamen didn't communicate directly with their American allies but must pass requests through the provincial police commander, who relayed messages. The spokesman asked not to be identified, saying that the militia's rules didn't allow it.
According to a local police spokesman, members of the local U.S.-financed awakening council — the name the American military uses to describe its militia allies — were manning a checkpoint when they came under attack by suspected al Qaida in Iraq gunmen.
The militia called for U.S. support, but when an American patrol in the area responded, it began firing on the checkpoint guards, said the police spokesman, who asked not to be identified further, as he wasn't authorized to speak for publication. The U.S. military then called in attack helicopters, which fired on the checkpoint and two houses nearby.
An American military spokesman, Lt. Col. Randy Martin, said the incident was being investigated, and he declined to discuss further details.
Asked whether coalition forces usually communicate with awakening groups, Lt. Col. James Hutton, another U.S. military spokesman, said in an e-mail message that they did. He was unable to elaborate, however.
Last July, American attack helicopters struck homes in the Husseiniya neighborhood of northern Baghdad, killing at least six people and wounding five after troops came under fire there. Residents said 11 were killed and some Iraqi authorities said that as many as 18 were killed. The U.S. said the homes had stored weapons caches.
In November, north of Baghdad, the Taji Awakening Council leader said that American airstrikes had killed 45 of his men while they manned checkpoints. A U.S. statement said they'd killed 25 armed, suspected insurgents in the area.
Also on Monday, coalition forces announced the killings of 15 suspected insurgents during a series of firefights Sunday and Monday in Khalis, about 50 miles north of Baghdad, in Diyala province. Eight suspects were arrested and five buildings burned to prevent armed militants from using the area, the statement said.
(Lannen reports for the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader. McClatchy special correspondent Qassim Zein in Najaf contributed to this story.)