CAMP TAJI, Iraq - From an Apache helicopter, Capt. Ben Katzenberger's battlefield resembles a vast mosaic of tiny brown boxes.
"The city looks like a bucket of Legos dumped out on the ground," the 26-year-old pilot said. "It's brown Legos, no color. It's really dense and hard to pick things out because everything looks the same."
He uses a powerful lens to zoom in on tiny silhouettes, trying to identify people with "hostile intent" among hundreds of ordinary citizens in Baghdad.
In recent weeks, Katzenberger and other pilots have dramatically increased their use of helicopter-fired missiles against enemy fighters, often in densely populated areas. Since late March, the military has fired more than 200 Hellfire missiles in the capital, compared with just six missiles fired in the previous three months.
The military says the tactic has saved the lives of ground troops and prevented attacks, but the strikes have also killed and wounded civilians, provoking criticism from Iraqis.
On Wednesday, eight people, including two children, were killed when a U.S. helicopter opened fire on a group of Iraqis traveling to a U.S. detention center to greet a man who was being released from custody, Iraqi officials said.
The U.S. military said in a statement that it had targeted men linked to a suicide bombing network. "Unfortunately, two children were killed when the other occupants of the vehicle, in which they were riding, exhibited hostile intent," the statement said.
U.S. officials say they go to great lengths to avoid harming civilians in airstrikes.
"It's not Hollywood and it's not 110 percent perfect," said Col. Timothy J. Edens, the commander of the 12th Combat Aviation Brigade, of the accuracy of his unit's strikes. "It is as precise as very hardworking soldiers and commanders can make it. These criminals do not operate in a clean battle space. It is occupied by civilians, law-abiding Iraqis."
Those civilians include people like Zahara Fadhil, a 10-year-old girl with a tiny frame and long brown hair. Relatives said she was wounded by a missile on April 20 at approximately 8 p.m. in Baghdad's Shiite enclave of Sadr City. The U.S. military said it fired a Hellfire missile in Zahara's neighborhood at that time, targeting men who were seen loading rockets into a sedan.
Her face drained of color and her legs scarred by shrapnel, Zahara spoke haltingly when asked what she thought of U.S. troops.
"They kill people," she said. Lying in bed, she gasped for air before continuing. "They should leave Iraq now."
Shortly after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched an operation in late March to crack down on Shiite militias in the southern city of Basra, Shiite fighters in Baghdad stepped up mortar and rocket attacks against the Green Zone, the fortified area housing many U.S. and Iraqi officials. A handful of Americans were killed in those attacks.
The U.S. military responded by targeting fighters from the air, firing Hellfire missiles almost daily into Sadr City, a vast and impoverished district that is the Baghdad stronghold of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. U.S. forces have also supported Iraqi troops on the ground.
Many residents described the recent military operations in Sadr City as indiscriminate attacks. Civilian deaths and damage to homes were key reasons Sadrist leaders demanded that U.S. troops remain on the sidelines of an Iraqi Army incursion into Sadr City this week that has significantly reduced violence there.
At a sprawling air base on the outskirts of Baghdad, Edens, Katzenberger and their colleagues live in small trailers surrounded by blast walls, play volleyball on sand courts and eat at an outdoor food court. Many of the pilots are in their 20s.
The pilots sometimes scrawl messages on the five-foot-long missiles strapped to their "birds." During a recent visit to the base, a reporter saw a missile addressed to "Haji," an honorific for people who have made the pilgrimage to Mecca. Many U.S. soldiers use it to refer dismissively to Iraqis and Arabs in general. Someone wrote "rock this thang" on another.
The small, white trailers adjacent to the airfield where the pilots do paperwork have Christmas lights strung from the ceiling. Two bumper stickers on windows say: "I [heart] Sadr City."
'Cowardly American Bombings'
Just before the missile hit, Zahara was returning home from delivering food to neighbors. She was near the door when her grandmother yelled: "Get inside the house!"
As she began to move, the missile crashed into the house, throwing her behind a set of stairs.
One of Zahara's uncles, Dhia Rahi Shaie al-Koreishi, 34, a taxi driver, and her grandmother, Um Fadhil al-Koreishi, were killed by the blast.
"The heart of this family has been ripped out," said Alaa Rahi Shaie, 29, another uncle, who was stoic in describing the death of his brother. "This is his blood," he said, indicating red splotches in front of his home. "And the remains of his head are over there."
He pointed at a large mound of dirt. A group of young boys dug out the remains and then showed visitors a black bag filled with clumps of hair and scalp.
Family members and neighbors said they didn't see anyone in the area fire rockets. Two black funeral banners hung outside the battered home to honor the dead.
"They were killed because of the cowardly American bombings," the banners read.
The U.S. military said it fired a Hellfire missile in the area that night targeting men officials said they saw loading rockets into a sedan, killing two of them. The military said it monitored the sedan for hours before firing, out of concern for "collateral damage to innocent civilians."
Since the fighting intensified in eastern Baghdad this spring, the U.S. Army has kept six Apaches in the air around the clock.
Military officials say they often refrain from firing, even with legitimate targets in sight, because they are afraid of hurting civilians. "As in all wars, when things go wrong, bad things happen," said Edens, the colonel. "There's no doubt that there have been innocent civilians killed in this ugly war."
Pilots do not work alone. In a command center a couple of miles from the airstrip, soldiers monitor live video feeds from Apaches and unmanned drones. The black-and-white images are displayed on flat-screen TVs, and the quiet chatter is dominated by radio exchanges between pilots and soldiers on the ground. Working 12-hour shifts, the soldiers often monitor targets for hours.
"The challenge you run into is he can shoot a rocket and pull into a garage," said Maj. Will Downing, a supervisor at the operations center, as nearby screens displayed grainy snippets of life in eastern Baghdad. "They shoot and they are gone."
'We Are All Helpless'
Hassan Ali Kreidy, 54, a barber in Sadr City, felt the power of the Apaches' missiles on April 28 when one ravaged his shop and a handful of other businesses. The apparent target of a strike was a car parked in front, he said.
"What can you say? We are all helpless," said Ahmed Abdul Rahim, who owns a cellphone store that was also damaged. "What have we done to deserve this? Our stores are now in danger. None of us are safe here."
At the Martyr Sadr Hospital late last month, several patients said they were wounded in U.S. airstrikes. Their accounts could not be corroborated; some may have been wounded by errant rockets fired by militiamen.
Hussein Amane Kareem al-Obeidi, 37, a day laborer, lay with a bloody tube sticking out of his right nostril and two others draining fluid from his stomach. They were attached to sacks lying on a filthy floor. One was filled with urine, the other with blood.
He said he was at home on May 1 when a missile landed nearby, damaging nine homes. His mother, standing at his bedside, cursed the U.S. military.
"They are occupiers and they consider whoever is in the city to be an enemy to them!" she said. "They came for the destruction of the country and this is what they are doing."
'This Is for Real. Game On.'
Katzenberger, of Kansas City, Mo., fired his first missiles last month. Arriving in Iraq last winter on his first deployment was nerve-wracking, he said.
"You've been building up for this for three years and now you're going to get to do what you were trained to do," he said. "You get this bit of excited rush feeling, like right before you get out of the locker room before a game. We got in the helicopter and started flying up and you start looking down and you're like -- wow. I'm in Iraq now. This isn't back in Texas where we were just training. People down there are going to try to shoot me. This is for real. Game on."
Firing missiles at tanks at a base in Texas during training was exciting, he said.
"There's this big roaring woosh sound, a missile shoots by and there's a flash of light," he said quickly and excitedly. "Then you see this big cloud of smoke in front of you. And then it gets really quiet for a bit. You're like -- oh, oh, I hope I don't miss, I hope I don't miss, don't miss, don't miss, don't miss, don't miss. Then wack! It smacks the target. It's an awesome feeling hitting the target."
Firing his first missile in Baghdad was sobering.
"I know I can do this," he told himself. The target was in sight and permission from ground commanders had been granted. "I've done this before. But you better not screw this up. If you mess up, people get hurt."
Katzenberger said pilots adhere to strict rules of engagement. They occasionally get reports of what happened on the ground after they fire the missiles. After that, "we never hear about it again," he said. "It leaves you a little sense of wondering. You kind of get that detached feeling."
© 2008 The Washington Post