BAGHDAD - For the battered working-class district of Abu Dshir, Ramadan evenings bring a rare air of festivity. The temperature is still warm, but the heat of summer has abated. Families stroll outdoors, and young men play nightly matches of a traditional Ramadan game called mihaidis, in which teams try to find a hidden ring.
As the teams lined up Thursday for the game, neighborhood residents said, a crowd of men gathered to watch. They lighted a large oil lamp which illuminated the street, a small shopping area where grocers and fruit vendors stay open late this time of year.
Two American helicopters hovered overhead, witnesses said.
Moments after the game began, the helicopters opened fire on the crowd, the witnesses said.
Seven men were killed, Sayyid Malik Abadi, the head of the district security committee, who arrived at the scene shortly after the episode, said Friday. He said perhaps an eighth man had died as well, but too many body parts were scattered about to be certain exactly how many were killed.
"The helicopters watched, and they thought it was a gathering and fired on it," Mr. Abadi said. "They fired rockets. When people started to run, the helicopters' machine guns began shooting at the people who were running."
The American military had a different version of events, which took place in the Saha part of the Abu Dshir district. A spokesman said that earlier in the evening American forces had twice observed episodes when two or three men fired mortars into the neighborhood to the north. After the second episode, the military called for an airstrike.
"We assess possibly two or three were killed or wounded," said Maj. Brad Leighton, a spokesman for the multinational forces in Baghdad. "We were not able to get an accurate assessment," he added.
"Collateral damage was not observed, but it is a possibility," Major Leighton said. "If some innocents were killed, we regret that."
The Abu Dshir district, a district that is majority Shiite, is largely controlled by the Mahdi Army, the militia loyal to the anti-American cleric Moktada al-Sadr, according to people who live there. However, members of the Mahdi Army in Abu Dshir have been observing the cease-fire ordered by Mr. Sadr in August, neighbors said. No one in the neighborhood appeared to be armed during a reporter's visit on Friday, although a few wore the black shirt and pants that the Mahdi Army often favors.
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Hussein Jassim, 61, a shop owner, said the militia members in the area were no longer active. "All the world knows that the Mahdi Army has been frozen on the orders of our leader Sayyied Moktada al-Sadr, so targeting this gathering, and saying they are Mahdi Army fighters, is all a lie," he said.
On Friday morning, relatives and neighbors gathered to escort the men's coffins to the neighborhood's Shiite mosque. The coffins arrived at the mosque in the back of pickup trucks.
A crowd of men in loose T-shirts and sandals stood silently watching the trucks as they approached. Men from the family stood among the coffins. On one truck was a boy, crying hysterically. Mr. Abadi said three of the boy's brothers had been killed.
The violence on Thursday occurred a little before 8 p.m., after families had finished breaking the daily Ramadan fast, according to eyewitnesses. For Ahmed Abdullah, 37, a taxi driver, who was also near the scene, confusion mixed with anger and grief. On Friday, he stood watching the coffins being loaded back onto the trucks to be driven for burial to Najaf, a city holy to Shiites.
"It was a real massacre of innocent people, without clear reason," he said. "I lost my brother-in-law - he was the father of three kids and he was just watching the game. May God revenge the bloodshed of those martyrs."
Elsewhere in Baghdad on Friday, five bodies were found.
American forces also announced that they had killed a man they described as a senior terrorist in an airstrike in Musayyib, south of Baghdad, on Tuesday. The military said that the man, Abu Osama al-Tunisi, was a leader of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, a homegrown extremist group whose leadership has foreign ties, according to American intelligence.
In Ankara, Turkey, on Friday, Iraq and Turkey signed an agreement to cooperate in fighting the Kurdish separatist group P.K.K. along their shared border, but the agreement did not include a provision allowing the Turkish Army to conduct cross-border operations against the Kurdish group.
Reporting was contributed by Andrew E. Kramer and Kareem Hilmi in Baghdad, Sebnem Arsu in Istanbul, and Iraqi employees of The New York Times in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company