BAIJI, Iraq - A U.S. helicopter airstrike on Wednesday night killed eight civilians, including two children, north of Baghdad, police officials said on Thursday.
Colonel Mudhher al-Qaisi, police chief in the town of Baiji, said the attack was on a group of shepherds in a vehicle in a farming area. Relatives said some of those killed were fleeing on foot after the U.S. military arrived in the area.
"This is a criminal act. It will make the relations between Iraqi citizens and the U.S. forces tense. This will negatively affect security improvements," Qaisi told Reuters.
A U.S. military spokeswoman, Lieutenant-Colonel Maura Gillen, said the helicopter fired after observing "suspicious activity". She said the driver had ignored warnings to stop.
The incident is the latest in a string of U.S. airstrikes in which civilians have been killed.
The U.S. military has been trying to soothe tensions with Baghdad over a U.S. soldier using a copy of the Koran, the Muslim holy book, for target practice.
United Nations officials have expressed concern at the number of civilians killed in airstrikes in Iraq and said more care must be taken in military operations to protect them.
The U.S. military said the Baiji attack was under investigation.
"Coalition forces regret the loss of innocent civilian lives," said Navy Captain Gordon Delcambre in a press statement. "Terrorists continue to show their disregard for human life by endangering children with their illegal and violent activities."
The U.S. military accuses insurgents of often deliberately hiding among civilians, and previous air strikes on suspected militant hideouts have resulted in civilian deaths.
Iraqi police have raised questions about another operation by U.S. forces in Baghdad on Wednesday in which 11 people were killed. The U.S. military has said its troops shot dead 11 militants, but police and several residents said at least some of the dead were civilians killed by U.S. snipers.
A spokesman for the U.S. military in Baghdad, Lieutenant-Colonel Steven Stover, denied any civilians were killed during the military operation near the Baghdad stronghold of anti-American Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
CORPSES IN SHEETS
Reuters pictures showed relatives of the dead standing beside corpses covered by white sheets outside a mosque in Baiji, an oil refining town 180 km (110 miles) north of Baghdad.
"There were two boys, one was eight and the other was 11," said police Major Ahmed Hussein, giving the ages of two of the victims.
A doctor at Baiji hospital who asked not to be named said it had received eight bodies following the incident early on Wednesday evening. One body was that of a 60-year-old man.
In October 2007, the United Nations mission in Iraq urged U.S. forces to pursue a "vigorous" probe into an airstrike that killed 15 women and children and said its findings must be made public so that lessons could be learned.
They were killed during an operation targeting senior leaders of al Qaeda in the Lake Thar Thar area 80 km (50 miles) northwest of the Iraqi capital. The U.S. military has not made public its investigations into such incidents.
Ghafil Rashed said his relatives were killed in the Baiji helicopter strike.
"The Americans raided our houses ... People start fleeing with their children, then the aircraft started bombing people in a street along the farm," he said, standing near the bodies of his brother and son at a Baiji mosque.
On Tuesday, some 10,000 Iraqi police and soldiers backed by tanks pushed deep into Sadr City, Sadr's Baghdad bastion, stamping the government's authority on an area until now outside its control.
Sadr aides have suggested he may seek rulings from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most senior Shi'ite cleric, on whether to dissolve his Mehdi Army militia, a major actor in the insurgency since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki met Sistani, a leading voice of moderation, in the holy Shi'ite city of Najaf on Thursday. Asked about Sistani's views on the government security efforts, Maliki told reporters:
"We did not get into details. Religious scholars generally support the state and when they are asked about issues, they say it's up to the government to decide, and this is the logic that can benefit the state."
Additional reporting by Khaled Farhan in Najaf and Aseel Kami in Baghdad
© 2008 Reuters