A U.S. helicopter strike killed eight civilians, including several children, an Iraqi police official said Thursday. The U.S. military said the assault north of Baghdad targeted al-Qaida fighters but acknowledged that children died.
Associated Press TV News footage showed the bodies of three children in blood-drenched clothes, along with the bodies of five men, at the hospital in Beiji, where the dead were taken after Wednesday evening's strike.
Beiji police Col. Mudhher al-Qaisi said the eight were civilian farmers who were fleeing in their vehicle from an area outside the town where U.S. forces were conducting raids. He said the helicopter became suspicious of the vehicle and opened fire.
The U.S. military said American forces were targeting an al-Qaida in Iraq weapons storage facility believed connected to a suicide bombing network. It said the helicopter opened fire on the vehicle when some of its occupants "exhibited hostile intent," and that children in the vehicle were killed.
The military statement did not specify the total number of people killed or elaborate on how the vehicle showed hostile intent. It and al-Qaisi said two children were killed, and the reason for the discrepancy with the footage from the hospital was not known.
The U.S. military "sincerely regrets when any innocent civilians are injured, resulting from terrorists locating themselves in and around them. We take every precaution to protect innocent civilians and engage only hostile threats," said spokesman Col. Jerry O'Hara in the statement.
The civilian deaths could strain ties between the U.S. military and Sunni Arabs who have turned against al-Qaida in Iraq and have joined American forces in fighting Sunni insurgents in regions west and north of Baghdad. Beiji, 155 miles north of Baghdad, lies in a largely Sunni Arab area.
The incidents come as Iraqi forces have launched a series of campaigns to impose their control in areas dominated by armed groups. On May 10, they began a sweep of the northern city of Mosul to root out al-Qaida in Iraq and other Sunni insurgents.
On Tuesday some 10,000 Iraqi soldiers and police deployed in Baghdad's Shiite stronghold of Sadr City, which for years was the unquestioned bastion of the Mahdi Army, loyal to anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The deployment has gone peacefully after a truce reached after weeks of fighting between the Mahdi Army and U.S.-Iraqi forces.
After a meeting Thursday with the commander of one of the Iraqi divisions, al-Sadr aide Muhanned al-Gharawi said "the Sadrist Movement is still cooperating with the Iraqi army in Sadr City in accordance with the agreement."
The commander, Maj. Gen. Qasim Jassim al-Maliki, thanked al-Sadr's followers and Sadr City residents for their cooperation with the troops. "No violation has occurred from either side," he said.
Two journalists killed
But militia violence has increased in neighboring parts of eastern Baghdad. For the second night in a row, clashes erupted in the nearby district of Obeidi late Wednesday. Iraqi police officials said three civilians were killed in the fighting.
Among the three was Iraqi television cameraman, Wissam Ali Auda, of Afaq TV, who was apparently caught in the crossfire on his way home, said Tariq Maher, a correspondent for Afaq TV, which is affiliated with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa party. The police officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.
In a second journalist killing, the bullet-riddled body of Hashim al-Hussein, a correspondent for the Sharq newspaper, was found dumped near the city of Baqouba, north of Baghdad, police and morgue officials said.
Al-Hussein, 35, was kidnapped Tuesday near his home in the Tahrir area, a former al-Qaida in Iraq stronghold that has recently seen a decline in violence, and his body was found in nearby Buhriz, the officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.
Excluding the two deaths reported Thursday, at least 127 journalists and 50 media workers have been killed in Iraq since the war started, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.