updated 11/14/2007 9:12:07 PM ET 2007-11-15T02:12:07

A leader of a Sunni group formed to resist al-Qaida in Iraq claimed Wednesday that U.S. troops mistakenly killed dozens of his fighters during a 12-hour battle north of Baghdad. He said he tried repeatedly to call the Americans and tell them they were fighting "their friends."

U.S. military officials said American troops killed 24 fighters and captured 16 in a battle in the same area which began as soldiers searched for al-Qaida extremists believed hiding there.

Mansour Abid Salim of the Taji Awakening Council told Al-Jazeera television that the clashes erupted late Tuesday and continued until Wednesday morning.

"Right from the first attack last night, we have continuously been contacting American commanders that they are hitting us, their friends," he said.

He said the Americans ignored special markings used to identify Sunni fighters who had broken with al-Qaida and joined with the U.S. and its Iraqi allies.

U.S. spokesmen in Baghdad said they were still gathering details of the fighting, which occurred near Taji, an American installation about 12 miles north of the capital.

Officials say weapons found before attack
According to initial reports, soldiers looking for al-Qaida operatives found armed men in the area, determined they were hostile and began firing. As troops pursued the gunmen, they came under fire from several directions and called in airstrikes, U.S. officials said.

Soldiers found large quantities of weapons, including anti-aircraft guns, surface-to-surface missiles and materials used to construct roadside bombs, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.

There were no reports of American casualties.

U.S. commanders have moved to exploit growing Sunni hostility to al-Qaida by promoting "awakening councils" — tribal and community leaders who organize their followers into self-defense groups.

Those groups, some of which include former insurgents, have proven effective in maintaining order in their communities and helping U.S. and Iraqi forces track down members of al-Qaida and other extremists, U.S. officials say.

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