The U.S. military admitted Sunday that American soldiers killed civilians after opening fire on a car last month on the heavily secured Baghdad airport road.
The statement — which called the man and two women killed "law abiding citizens of Iraq" — reversed earlier military claims that they were suspected militants who shot at a parked American convoy.
But the military blamed the shooting on a series of misunderstandings and said "neither the soldiers nor civilians involved in the incident were at fault."
The June 25 shooting deaths sparked controversy after Iraqi officials identified the three people killed as bank employees, not militants. The initial military statement claiming they were suspected militants raised concerns because it suggested that the tight security on the road leading to the Baghdad international airport had been penetrated.
Soldiers fired when car failed to follow orders
An investigation showed the soldiers fired at the civilian car when it failed to follow orders to stop as it approached the convoy, which had pulled to the side of the road because of maintenance problems, the military said Sunday.
The soldiers became alarmed when they noticed the car coming toward them "at what appeared to the soldiers to be a high rate of speed despite several obstructions in the road," the military said.
"Soldiers located at the rear of the convoy perceived the rapidly approaching vehicle as a threat," the military said, "and executed established escalation of force measures," which include warning shots.
"When the vehicle failed to respond to the soldiers' warning measures, it was engaged with small arms fire," the statement added.
The military also found that there was no weapon recovered from the car — as originally stated in the initial military statement on the shooting.
"A thorough investigation determined that the driver and passengers were law-abiding citizens of Iraq.
It said the initial report was based on numerous soldiers who "strongly believed they were being fired upon from the vehicle" and a mistaken belief that the Iraqi police arriving at the scene collected a weapon.
Soldiers not familiar with the area
The soldiers involved in the shooting were particularly nervous because they were regularly based in eastern Baghdad and were not familiar with the area on the airport road, according to Lt. Col. Steve Stover, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Baghdad.
Much of the area surrounding the Baghdad airport is controlled by the U.S. military, which has its main headquarters on the nearby Camp Victory complex. But the shooting occurred on a part of the road that is controlled by a private security company, Stover said.
He said several soldiers insisted that they believed they were under attack because they "saw flashes that they believed to be gunfire coming from the front passenger window" while others reported hearing shots.
It was not clear what caused the misperceptions, but Stover said the military had confirmed no weapons were in the vehicle or with the victims.
"This was an extremely unfortunate and tragic incident," another U.S. spokesman Col. Allen Batschelet said in the statement. "Our deepest regrets of sympathy and condolences go out to the family. We are taking several corrective measures to amend and eliminate the possibility of such situations happening in the future."