US Choppers Kill ... Who? Enemy or Innocents?

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McClatchy Newspapers

US Choppers Kill ... Who? Enemy or Innocents?

Hannah Allam / Jenan Hussein

BAGHDAD, Iraq - This much is agreed upon: at least six Iraqis died overnight Saturday when American attack helicopters pounded a cluster of homes in a dusty, nondescript neighborhood on the northern outskirts of Baghdad.

But the story of why those homes were targeted and who was killed depends on the storyteller. 0722 04

The U.S. military said the dead were insurgents and the homes in the Husseiniya district probably served as weapons depots; troops observed seven or more secondary explosions after the air assault. By the military's tally, six fighters were killed and five wounded.

Iraqi residents told a different version: the dead came from two Shiite Muslim families who lived in an area controlled by the powerful Mahdi Army militia. The bodies pulled from the rubble, locals say, were ordinary parents killed with their children in the middle of the night. Locals counted 11 corpses - two men, two women, and seven children. Another 10 were injured. Some Iraqi authorities put the death toll as high as 18.

In Iraq, where new bombings occur before authorities can even investigate the previous day's violence, the truth about Husseiniya might never come to light. Roadblocks erected around the neighborhood prevented reporters from reaching the scene.

"Lies, lies, lies," sputtered Salam al Rubaiye, 35, a computer technician who lives in Husseiniya and works in Sadr City. "The Americans always try to change the truth, especially when it concerns the Sadrists," the collective name for followers of the Mahdi Army commander, cleric Muqtada al Sadr.

Rubaiye visited the scene of the air strike twice Saturday. He first showed up early in the morning when, he said, volunteers were still digging the corpses of women and children from the rubble. Later, he brought a camera and snapped 14 photos.

They showed several piles of cinderblock where homes once stood. The interior of a severely damaged home showed only the detritus of family life: a potted plant, a wall hanging, a refrigerator, an electrical generator. "For Sale" was written in Arabic on the only surviving wall of one home.

Rubaiye also e-mailed two short cell-phone video clips that showed at least seven bodies swathed in blankets, some with grayish feet sticking out at the ends. Two of the bundles were tiny, as if they shrouded young children.

Residents said they'd finished retrieving the dead by 8 a.m., and that two young girls were still missing.

"I took out with my own hands the bodies of two young children, two men, two adult women and four little girls," said Bassem al Musawi, 30, who lives in the neighborhood. "I don't know why the Americans bombed these homes. I know one was the house of Abu Mustafa. He's a very poor man with only one boy and the rest of his family are girls. And he didn't even have a rifle."

In an e-mail response to questions on the incident, an American military spokesman wrote that U.S. troops had come under small-arms fire from gunmen in the area just before midnight. The troops "returned fire and attack helicopters, armed with missiles, engaged the structure the gunmen were firing from."

When three of the gunmen fled into another building, the military statement continued, "attack aircraft dropped a bomb on that structure and observed at least seven secondary explosions, likely caused by explosives and munitions stored inside the building." Iraqi police who inspected the site reported to the Americans that the home was destroyed, six insurgents were killed and five wounded.

Presented with the dueling accounts, both sides modified their versions.

Iraqi residents acknowledged hearing gunfire before the air strikes. And the U.S. military no longer insisted that only militants perished, though a spokesman emphasized that the air raid was a self-defense measure.

"The adversary is ruthless and puts no value on human life and will endanger innocent civilians - women, children - by hiding and cowering in buildings they take over," read a statement from Lt. Col. Michael Donnelly, spokesman for U.S. forces north of Baghdad.

Burials were planned, though it was unclear who had custody of the bodies. By late Saturday, there were plans for a large Mahdi Army demonstration to accompany the expected funeral procession.

"They say they target the terrorists, so where are they?" asked a 45-year-old Husseiniya resident who identified himself only as Abu Ghufran. "Most of the dead are women and children. There is no justice in this life."

Hussein is a special correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers. Special correspondent, Laith Hammoudi, contributed.

McClatchy Newspapers 2007

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