U.S. helicopters targeting insurgents mistakenly killed at least five allied Kurdish militiamen in the northern city of Mosul early Friday. The military also reported three more American soldiers killed in combat, pushing the U.S. death toll to 33 in the first eight days of the month.
Officials said the Kurds were killed about midnight as they guarded a branch of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, a political party led by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a key supporter of U.S. efforts in Iraq.
The U.S. military said the strike was launched after American ground forces spotted armed men in a bunker near a building they thought was being used to make bombs for al-Qaida in Iraq. The troops called out in Arabic and Kurdish telling the men to put down their weapons and also fired warning shots before the helicopters opened fire, the military said.
Five men later determined to be Kurdish police officers were killed and nine others were detained, the U.S. military said, offering condolences to the families of those who died. Kurdish officials put the casualty toll at eight killed and six wounded.
Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman denounced the airstrike. “This is not a good sign for the new security plan that they (U.S. forces) have started,” he said.
However, a spokesman for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, Azad Jundiyan, said the party realized the airstrike was a mistake. “We are allied with the coalition; it was a friendly fire incident, not an intentionally hostile act,” he said.
Jundiyan identified the dead as peshmerga — Kurdish militiamen who once battled Saddam Hussein’s regime. Many peshmerga have been incorporated into the Iraqi army since the U.S.-led invasion.
The incident far from Baghdad underlined a rise in violence in northern Iraq, where it is feared some insurgents are fleeing to avoid the security crackdown in the capital.
U.S. and British forces also face mounting casualties as they step up their presence to shore up Iraqi forces.
Three more American soldiers died Thursday in fighting in Anbar province, the U.S. military said Friday. More than half the 33 American deaths this month have been in Anbar, an insurgent stronghold stretching from Baghdad to the borders with Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
In southern Iraq, a roadside bomb killed a British soldier, raising the number of British combat deaths since the war started to 101. Three Britons also were wounded.
Among the Americans killed this month were seven who died when a CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter crashed in Anbar on Wednesday.
An Al-Qaida-linked insurgent group, the Islamic State in Iraq, posted an Internet video Friday showing what it said was the downing of the Marine helicopter. The U.S. military has said it did not believe the craft was shot down, although ground fire has brought down several helicopters recently.
Posted on a Web forum often used by Islamic militants, the two-minute video shows a helicopter that appears to be a Sea Knight in flight. An object trailing smoke is seen in the sky nearby, then the craft bursts into flames with a spray of debris. It is not clear, however, whether the streaking object is a missile, and it cannot be clearly seen hitting the chopper.
Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, chief operations officer for the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington, said Friday that there were indications the crash was caused by mechanical failure, although an investigation was still under way.
He added that militants have falsely claimed responsibility for aircraft crashes in the past. “So I’d be very cautious about drawing conclusions from things that are posted on the Internet,” he told a Pentagon news conference.
In violence across Iraq on Friday, at least 36 people were killed or found dead, including 11 people whose bullet-riddled bodies were found hours after they were kidnapped by gunmen wearing Iraqi army uniforms near a predominantly Shiite village south of Baghdad.