US raid leaves 25 militia fighters dead
Civilians among victims, Iraqis say
BAGHDAD - US forces backed by attack aircraft killed at least 25 Shi'ite militia fighters north of Baghdad yesterday in an operation targeting a cell accused of smuggling weapons from Iran, the military said.
Iraqi officials, however, said American bombs killed civilians who rushed to help those injured in the initial airstrike and claimed the only ones armed in the neighborhood were locals trying to organize themselves against Al Qaeda.
Three US soldiers were killed in roadside bombings yesterday - two in southeastern Baghdad and one in Salahuddin province north of the capital, the military said. The military also reported the death of a soldier shot Thursday in a southern section of Baghdad used by Al Qaeda cells.
The new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, US Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, met Iraq's prime minister on a visit to Baghdad yesterday and urged Iraqis to seize the opportunity of improved security.
"I see a tremendous amount of change and progress since I was here before," Mullen told reporters after discussions with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in the Iraqi capital. "But we still face significant challenges in progress and security."
Maliki said Iraq has witnessed positive changes "after confronting the terrorist organization of Al Qaeda," but he stressed the need for better weapons for Iraqi troops to enable them to take over security responsibilities so US-led troops can go home.
The Shi'ite leader also expressed concern about US-sponsorship of Sunni tribal councils that have turned against Al Qaeda, demanding that they be accepted "within the framework of the law so that we do not allow the emergence of new militias and so that arms would be with the state, not with the party or the sect."
In yesterday's predawn raid in Khalis, a Shi'ite enclave about 50 miles north of Baghdad, gunmen opened fire on the soldiers with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, and at least one man was carrying what appeared to be an antiaircraft weapon, the military said.
Ground forces called for air support when the fighters kept coming, the military said. Two buildings were destroyed in airstrikes, it said.
An Iraqi Army official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information, said US aircraft bombed the neighborhood repeatedly and he asserted that civilians, including seven children, were among those killed and three children were among the 28 wounded.
He said the civilians were killed when families rushed out to help those hurt in the initial bombing.
The US military said the raid was aimed at the commander of a rogue militia group believed to be associated with the Quds Force, an elite branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
But the town's top official said US forces targeted areas built up by locals to protect their Shi'ite neighborhood against attacks by Al Qaeda gunmen. The guards were armed and worked around the clock, he said.
"These places came under attack by American airstrikes," said Khalis Mayor Odai al-Khadran. "Locals were protecting themselves by guarding their village. They are not militias killing people."
Since launching a Baghdad security crackdown more than seven months ago, US troops have increasingly battled splinter groups from the country's most powerful Shi'ite militia, the Mahdi Army. The Mahdi Army is nominally loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical cleric, who in August ordered a temporary freeze on his followers' activities - including attacks on US troops.