September 3, 2008, Baghdad – U.S. troops mistakenly killed six members of Iraq’s security forces Monday, Iraqi officials said, further straining relations between the U.S. military and the Iraqis they are paying to secure the country.
The pre-dawn confusion in Mizrafa, a stretch of farmland along the Tigris River north of Baghdad, claimed the lives of two Iraqi police officers and four members of the Awakening, a group of mostly Sunni fighters who work with the U.S. military, said Iraqi Army Maj. Mohammed Younis.
A U.S. military spokeswoman said the shooting was under review. “It is always regrettable when incidents of mistaken fire occur on the battlefield,” Staff Sgt. Stephanie Boy wrote in an e-mail.
The incident took place when U.S. troops aboard a boat on the Tigris approached a patrol of Awakening fighters, who were already on alert because a suicide bomber had attacked the leader of the local group in nearby Tarmiyah, killing one person and wounding four.
“They heard a rumor that al-Qaida was going to stage an offensive against their town from the river,” Younis said, referring to the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaida in Iraq. “They deployed themselves along the river waiting to ambush al-Qaida if they started to attack.”
When the boat approached, the Awakening fighters fired warning shots because they could not determine whether the vessel was manned by Americans, Younis said. He said the troops on the boat did not shoot back but an Apache helicopter later opened fire on the Iraqi forces, killing the police officers and Awakening members and wounding 10 Iraqis.
The U.S. forces were in the area conducting operations against al-Qaida in Iraq, Boy said. She confirmed that the operations involved aircraft but declined to specify the number of Iraqi casualties.
The incident is the latest in a string of accidental attacks by U.S. forces on the Awakening fighters, who are widely credited with helping to reduce violence over the past year. The incident in Mizrafa enraged Awakening members and caused at least 10 of them to quit.
“We don’t feel safe working with the Awakening anymore because of the American forces,” said Ali Younis, 18, who quit and turned in his weapon Wednesday.
The shooting comes at a delicate time in negotiations between Iraq and the U.S. over a security pact governing the presence of U.S. troops in the country. Iraqi officials say both sides have agreed that American forces will withdraw by end of 2011, with the key disagreement centering on whether the U.S. troops will be immune from prosecution under Iraqi law.
The U.S. negotiators have demanded that the troops have complete immunity; the Iraqis counter that the immunity should only apply on American bases and on missions approved by the Iraqi government, according to Sami al-Askari, a prominent Shiite lawmaker.
In other developments, the Iraqi Cabinet voted to reopen Abu Ghraib prison as a facility for holding criminals, with part of it set aside as “a museum of the former regime’s crimes,” according to a statement from government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh.
The facility was once used to torture and execute enemies of Saddam Hussein and then became the site of the U.S. prisoner abuse scandal.