BAGHDAD, Iraq — American troops killed eight people — four of them women — after taking heavy fire during a raid Wednesday on a suspected terrorist’s house northeast of Baghdad, the U.S. command said.
But relatives of the dead disputed the U.S. account, saying their family had nothing to do with any terrorist group.
Outside the pockmarked house, which relatives said belonged to Mohammed Jassim, bullet casings littered the ground and blood stained the sand. Family members cried and consoled one another as the bodies of the women were taken away.
“This is an ugly criminal act by the U.S. soldiers against Iraqi citizens,” Manal Jassim, who lost her parents and other relatives in the attack, told Associated Press Television News.
Iraq’s major Sunni clerical organization, the Association of Muslim Scholars, condemned the raid as a “terrorist massacre.”
The attack in Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, came as a new poll by the State Department and independent researchers indicated a strong majority of Iraqis want U.S.-led military forces to withdraw immediately from the country. The poll, obtained by The Washington Post , showed, for example, that nearly three-quarters of Baghdad residents would feel safer if the U.S. and other foreign forces left Iraq with 65 percent favoring an immediate pullout.
More violence during Ramadan
The top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell, told reporters there had been a spike in violence in Baghdad with the onset of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which officially began on Monday. Suicide attacks were at their highest level ever, he said without giving figures.
“We are seeing an increase in attacks, as anticipated. The terrorists and illegal armed groups are punching back in an effort to discredit the government of Iraq and more specifically the Baghdad security plan,” Caldwell said. “This has been a tough week.”
He said murders and executions are currently the No. 1 cause of civilian deaths in Baghdad, and operations against sectarian death squads have been stepped up.
Since mid-July, 29 death squad cell leaders and 254 members have been killed or captured, Caldwell said. There were 14 operations in the past week, resulting in two cell leaders and 42 members killed or captured.
“Iraqi security forces are making a concerted effort to defeat the insurgency and stop sectarian violence,” Caldwell said. “Specifically Iraqi security forces are taking the fight to death squads within the Baghdad area.”
On Wednesday alone, the bodies of 15 people found in various areas outside Baghdad were delivered to the morgue in Kut, 100 miles southeast of the capital. Most showed signs of torture and had their hands and legs bound; five were beheaded.
Operation Together Forward, a security drive to clear the capital neighborhood by neighborhood, was launched this summer after U.S. generals warned sectarian violence was leading toward civil war. Sweeps have been started or completed in about half the neighborhoods of the capital.
As of Sept. 25, 95,757 buildings had been cleared, 124 prisoners taken and 1,785 weapons seized in the operation. As part of the infrastructure rebuilding component, 6.6 million cubic feet of trash has been removed from the streets, Caldwell said.
Operation successful, military says
There is a noticeable difference in the neighborhoods that have been targeted, Caldwell said.
“When you look at the areas we’ve operated in, Dora used to be the highest amount of murders and executions within the entire city of Baghdad, and today now it’s really probably the lowest level within the entire city because of the operations,” he said.
In the southern city of Basra, British and Iraqi troops launched a security operation Wednesday aimed at rooting out corrupt police, pacifying the city and helping residents rebuild, the British military said.
Some 2,300 Iraqi army troops and 1,000 British soldiers started Operation Sinbad, with 2,000 more British troops conducting operations in the surrounding area, said British forces spokesman Maj. Charlie Burbridge. A key component of the operation is a crackdown on police corruption, he said.
Since January 2005, the predominantly Shiite city has fallen under the influence of Shiite militias, which have infiltrated police and local government institutions. In June, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki declared a state of emergency in Basra following a rise in violence among mostly Shiite groups competing for power.
In Baghdad, meanwhile, the prime minister’s military office said a leader of the militant 1920 Revolution Brigades was arrested Tuesday in the village of al-Jazira. The group is believed to be responsible for numerous attacks against U.S. forces and a series of kidnappings.
Another leader of the group and seven aides were arrested Saturday in the same area, about 60 miles north of Baghdad. Authorities have not released the insurgents’ names.
Bloody day across Iraq
Twenty-three people died violently around Iraq, including at least 10 killed in a shootout Wednesday night near a Sunni mosque in Hurriyah, a northern neighborhood of Baghdad, police said. The U.S. command also announced the deaths of a Marine and a U.S. soldier, both killed in action Monday in Anbar province.
In the U.S.-led raid in Baqouba, American soldiers came under fire when approaching the home of a suspect linked to the leaders of al-Qaida in Iraq, the U.S. command said in a statement.
U.S. troops killed two terrorist suspects, then called in air strikes “due to the heavy volume of enemy fire from the target building,” the military said. After the attack, they found the bodies of two more terror suspects and four women in the building.
Three people were wounded, including two suspected terrorists who were detained, the military said.
The troops also found weapons and a global positioning system, the military said.
A family member said all eight people killed were relatives and disputed that they had any links to a terrorist group. “The Americans killed my relatives who had no guilt or relation with any group,” Saleh Ali told The Associated Press.
“They were innocent people,” said Manal Jassim, the homeowner’s daughter. “We were sleeping when they entered our house at dawn. I found my father, mother, aunt and sister-in-law laying dead. We were an 11-member family. Eight were killed.”
Caldwell said the American patrol had broadcast messages for people to leave the building peacefully but gunfire was the only response.
“It’s extremely unfortunate whenever there’s a loss of life. And nobody’s quite sure what the connection was to all those people that were firing their weapons from that home. But it’s unfortunate that anybody ever has to die,” he said.
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