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U.S. troops mistakenly fire on Iraqi police officers, killing 9

FALLUJAH, Iraq—U.S. troops opened fire Friday on a group of Iraqi security officers who were chasing suspected bandits, killing nine police officers and wounding nine others in what appeared to be the latest in a string of tragic errors by American forces.

The 1 a.m. incident near the town of Fallujah happened during one of the bloodiest 48-hour periods of fighting in Iraq since President Bush declared the conventional war over on May 1. Two coalition soldiers were killed and as many as 19 were wounded in four separate attacks, military officials and witnesses said.

The two coalition soldiers—their nationalities were not specified—were killed in a firefight during a raid about 3 a.m. in the town of Ramadi, 30 miles west of Fallujah, the military said. Seven others were wounded.

In another attack, in Fallujah, at least four bystanders were injured after American soldiers returned fire when their convoy was attacked by bombs and rockets, witnesses said. The four, including a 1-year-old girl who was shot in the head, were brought to the hospital where a Knight Ridder reporter was interviewing wounded police officers. The baby appeared gravely injured.

Haythem Saleh said he was visiting relatives in the area when he saw U.S. Humvees explode from bombs detonated in the street. As soldiers poured out of their vehicles, he said, guerrillas fired rocket-propelled grenades at them. He said he saw what looked like nine wounded Americans.

"The Americans started to shoot randomly against the houses," he said. Among the injured was 1-year-old Usama Hamid, who was shot in the head while playing in her house, her cousin said. Another man was shot in the cheek, and two other young girls were brought in with what appeared to be minor injuries.

A U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad said he had no information about that incident. Capt. Jeff Fitzgibbons also had no details about the police deaths, but said a news conference was planned Saturday to address them.

The Iraqi security officers—some of whom were wearing uniforms, witnesses said—were killed on a highway west of Fallujah in front of a Jordanian field hospital. It was the third recent instance of U.S. troops killing Iraqi police as they carried out their duties, and the episode was sure to complicate efforts by the U.S.-led coalition to train and bolster local security forces.

The police killings came just three days after U.S. troops shot and killed one Iraqi policeman and seriously wounded another after their convoy was bombed in Fallujah, according to a western news report.

Fallujah, west of Baghdad, is such a hotbed of anti-American sentiment that U.S. troops have withdrawn from the town and left security to national and local police forces. Elements of the 82nd Airborne Division, which has a reputation for aggressive tactics, recently began patrolling there.

Soldiers from that division killed an 18-year-old girl two weeks ago after her 13-year-old brother fired shots out the door of their house during a raid south of Baghdad. In April, soldiers from the 82nd killed 16 people in Fallujah after they were fired on by members of a protest crowd.

In July, American soldiers gunned down two unformed Iraqi policemen who were chasing criminal suspects in Baghdad, in what military officials later called a regrettable tragedy.

The facts of Friday's incident were not entirely clear, but accounts from Iraqi witnesses were consistent in certain key respects.

About 25 officers of the Iraqi Police and the Fallujah Protection Force, a U.S.-sanctioned security corps, were pursuing a white BMW driven by suspected highway bandits shortly before 1 a.m., said Iraqi Police Lt. Ayad Albad, who works at the station closest to the scene.

Albad said two of the vehicles were white with blue painted doors, the American-approved indicator of an Iraqi police car. A third vehicle, a pick-up truck with a machine-gun mounted on it, was white.

As the chase neared the Jordanian hospital, the police turned around after losing sight of the BMW, and an American patrol on the road opened fire, said Asem Mohammed, 23, a police sergeant who was shot in the thigh.

"We were chasing a white BMW with bandits. We turned around in front of the Jordanian hospital and some American forces started shooting at us," he said.

After Mohammed fell asleep in the hospital, his brother, Khasim, quoted him as saying earlier that he had tried to show the Americans the bright patch on his arm that indicated he was a law enforcement officer.

"We're police! We're police!" Khasim Mohammed said his brother yelled to the Americans.

Dr. Dial Jumaili said he arrived in an ambulance to a scene of carnage. "I saw eight killed. There were bodies lying on each other. The brain tissues were out of their skull."

While he was at the scene, Jumaili said, someone opened fire on U.S. troops who were guarding it. Jordanian officials said one security officer was killed and four were wounded.

Fitzgibbons, the U.S. spokesman, said a soldier from the 82nd Airborne was injured when an American contingent was attacked with small arms and rocket-propelled grenades near the Jordanian hospital. He said five non-combatants were wounded in the ensuing firefight, but he could not specify their nationalities.

Officials with the Fallujah Protection Force said eight of its members were killed, along with one Iraqi policeman. Jumaili said nine people were wounded, two seriously.

While reporters were interviewing witnesses to the police incident at the Fallujah hospital, thunderous explosions could be heard nearby, and a gun battle broke out.

Three more U.S. soldiers were wounded in an RPG attack on their convoy Friday morning west of Fallujah, the military said, and another American soldier was injured in a bomb attack on his Humvee on the main road into the capital.

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099):

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GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064):

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