Iraqis place Sadr City toll at 17 as confusion over Sunday fighting continues

BAGHDAD — Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood seethed with anger on Monday over a U.S. military raid that U.S. officials said targeted a kidnapping ring but that Iraqis say killed as many as 17 innocent women and children.

American officials declined to provide additional information on the Sunday raid, though they continued to insist that no civilians were among the 49 people killed during the bloody sweep.

Six more coffins were reported to have arrived at the huge Shiite Muslim cemetery at Najaf, about 100 miles southwest of Baghdad, where 11 of the dead were buried on Sunday. Four children were among the dead, an emergency worker told McClatchy Newspapers.

It was the latest violent incident in which U.S. and Iraqi accounts differ radically.

Last month, Iraqis accused private U.S. military contractors from Blackwater USA of killing 17 civilians in an unprovoked shooting spree at a busy traffic circle in Baghdad's Mansour neighborhood.

That incident is under investigation. Blackwater has insisted that the guards opened fire only after they were ambushed, but Iraqi officials have said their investigation has found no evidence of that.

In Sunday's incident, U.S. military officials said U.S. troops came under attack in Sadr City on three separate occasions and that only insurgents were killed in the ensuing combat. But Iraqi officials denounced that version and called for an investigation.

"People in Sadr City are upset with the Americans, the Iraqi government. Why can't they protect the innocent?" said Jassim Hashim, a 35-year-old train engineer who was shot in the leg during the U.S. raids.

Hashim said he had just set out to work when U.S. helicopters swept low over Sadr City, which is home to more than 2 million Shiites in Baghdad's northeast quadrant. He said the helicopters began raining fire on the city below.

Hashim was shot in the leg, while two companions, he said, were seriously hurt.

He said he also saw two neighborhood boys, one 13 and the other 14 years old, crumple to the ground as bullets struck them. Both died, Hashim said. Hashim identified the younger boy as Husham.

"The helicopters were shooting randomly here and there," Hashim said.

Confusion over the number of dead continued Monday. The U.S. military stuck by its count, while local Iraqi officials said the number was much smaller — though rising to 17 on Monday after several of the seriously wounded succumbed to injuries.

Among the dead were four children, an emergency worker at Imam Ali hospital in Sadr City said. The worker asked not to be identified because he wasn't authorized to speak.

There also have been varying counts of the injured, whose number were estimated at as many as 69 on Sunday by Iraqi police and hospital workers.

Usually, U.S. accounts of an incident offer lower death and wounded totals than Iraqi versions do, so the tallies coming from both sides in Sunday's incident added a perplexing twist.

"Yes, it is very strange," said Salah al Ubaydi, a close adviser to Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr, whose Mahdi Army militia is the dominant military force in Sadr City.

"What I know is that no patrols came to the scene after the raid, so how did they count the 49 killed?" he asked.

Neither U.S. military nor embassy officials would comment on the death toll or how it had been determined.

The military's intended target, whom U.S. officials declined to name but accuse of organizing the kidnappings of soldiers and other foreigners in May and last November, wasn't among the dead, U.S. officials said.

In its description of the incident Sunday, the U.S. military said armored vehicles, backed by helicopters, arrived in Sadr City before dawn.

Coalition forces came under fire while clearing buildings in one neighborhood. The first round of fighting killed 33 insurgents, the military said.

Insurgents then fired rocket-propelled grenades at the U.S. forces, and U.S. helicopters returned fire, killing six insurgents, the military said.

Coalition forces killed 10 more combatants as troops were leaving, the military said.

Sunday's offensive drew quick condemnation by top Iraqi officials, including Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, a Shiite.

In a sign of growing frustration over the American presence, leaders of the Iraqi parliament said they were considering forming a panel to look into the role of U.S. forces in Iraq.

Meanwhile, the violence continued.

In Baghdad, improvised bombs killed two civilians in Zafaraniya in city's southeast and killed another two civilians and injured 13 in the downtown neighborhood of Karrada. A third improvised explosive device killed an Iraqi soldier and wounded two others in west Baghdad.

Five unidentified bodies were discovered in five different locations across the city.

(Calvan reports for The Sacramento Bee. McClatchy special correspondents Laith Hammoudi and Jenan Hussein contributed to this report.)