Coalition forces kill 25 in Iraq, but identities of dead disputed

BAGHDAD — Coalition forces supported by aircraft killed at least 25 people early Friday. U.S. military officials said the dead were members of a radical Shiite Muslim group backed by Iran, but an Iraqi government official said they were armed civilians.

It was one of the biggest firefights in Iraq this year.

The coalition troops were in Diyala province west of the provincial capital, Baqouba, seeking a leader of the so-called Special Groups when they came under attack, said Maj. Winfield Danielson, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad. He declined to identify the unit involved or its nationality.

American soldiers have been patrolling the area heavily much of the year.

The Special Groups started as part of the Mahdi Army militia, controlled by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr. But when Sadr ordered a cease-fire, the Special Groups ignored it and continued attacking U.S. troops. American military officials have said that Iran's elite Quds Force supports the group with weapons, money and training.

Falih al Fayadh, the director of an office that represents the prime minister in the province, said more than 20 people had been wounded Friday, and that the dead and wounded were residents who'd often been attacked by terrorists.

The locals fired first, Fayadh said, but only because they mistook the soldiers — who came around dawn — for insurgents. Those killed included two women and a child, he said.

"There was clearly a problem with the coordination between the coalition commanders and local police," Fayadh said.

Danielson said the troops involved reported no civilian casualties. They were seeking a Special Groups commander who's thought to be involved in smuggling weapons from Iran to Baghdad, where Special Groups fighters have been blamed for several recent attacks on U.S. troops.

As the coalition troops moved into the area, they came under heavy fire, according to a U.S. military news release. When they began firing back, the attack on them grew more intense, according to the release.

They called in air support, and the attackers began to move toward the coalition troops, firing AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades, according to the release.

One fighter was seen with what appeared to be an antiaircraft weapon. When he ducked into a building, the support aircraft attacked with unspecified weapons, destroying two buildings and killing about 25 people, Danielson said.

He said the coalition forces didn't find the Special Groups commander they'd sought.

Elsewhere in Iraq, the U.S. military reported, coalition forces killed at least 12 suspected terrorists Friday.

In Baghdad, they killed seven and detained one while hunting an associate of senior leaders of the group al Qaida in Iraq.

Near Yusufiyah, south of Baghdad, they killed four suspected terrorists, and they killed one and detained one in the northern city of Kirkuk.

(Price writes for The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. Hammoudi is a McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent.)