BAGHDAD - The families of three men who were killed last week during a search of a grain warehouse want to press charges against American soldiers under the terms of a new security agreement between the U.S. and Iraq.
The security document protects American soldiers so long as they're on U.S. bases or on missions, so it's unlikely that the families can base their claims on it, though they plan to press their case with the help of international lawyers.
Nonetheless, their charges are a preview of some of the nettlesome questions that are likely to arise as the U.S. yields more authority to Iraq under the terms of the pact, which takes effect Jan. 1.
Iraqis will lead operations, but U.S. forces will continue to have a high profile with their more advanced armor and weapons.
Iraq's parliament approved the deal last month, and President George W. Bush visited Iraq last week to spotlight an agreement that allows U.S. forces to remain in Iraq for another three years.
"Where is Iraq's sovereignty, even if it is to go in effect Jan. 1?" asked Ahmed Cheloob Sabor, 48, whose brother was one of the three security guards who died in the incident last Wednesday at a Ministry of Trade grain-storage site. "Why did this incident take place so close to that date?"
Two different descriptions of the raid are circulating in Baghdad, both from official sources.
The Trade Ministry furnished gory pictures to two Iraqi newspapers showing blood smeared along walls in a bedroom at the storage site. Ministry officials and victims' families were quoted in the newspaper accounts as saying that the men were killed while they were asleep at about 5:10 a.m. One of the photos shows bloody sleeping bags.
"The Ministry of Trade denounces this despicable act that targeted one of its sites," the ministry says in a statement on its Web site. The ministry "demands that the American forces halt these attempts and submit a formal apology in addition to compensating the victims of the incident, who were security guards tasked with guarding the site."
The U.S. military, however, says Iraqi special forces led the search. Military spokesman Capt. Charles Calio said U.S. soldiers were at the scene only as advisers. He stressed that the men who were killed had fired their weapons at the soldiers.
"The targeted individuals were not sleeping at the time of the attack; they were killed in an exchange of gunfire," Calio said.
A week ago, the U.S. touted the raid in a news release that praised the Iraqi forces for their professionalism. It said the joint operation had netted four arrests of suspected criminals and the seizure of weapons, homemade explosives and bulletproof vests.
The Iraqi National Police and the Iraqi army refused to explain their roles in the raid.
The search took place in Atafiyah, a north Baghdad neighborhood where U.S. and Iraqi security forces are sharing quarters on joint bases and coordinating missions.
That partnership, once an exception in most of Iraq, is now the norm. After Jan. 1, all offensive military operations must be coordinated through the Iraqi government, though U.S. forces will be allowed to defend themselves on those missions under the security agreement.
The U.S. military didn't say what prompted the joint raid, but it's common for security forces to search large government facilities such as warehouses and rail yards for hidden weapons.
The Trade Ministry controls Iraq's monthly ration program, which provides residents with basic necessities such as tea, sugar and rice. The ministry has been the focus of several corruption probes, and several high-ranking officials were ousted in September because of allegations that they'd misused their positions.
Ministry spokesman Mohammed Hanoon said U.S. officials had assured him that the Iraqi forces led the raid and fired at the site. He still faulted the Americans, however, saying that as advisers they should have crafted a safer strategy to take control of the facility without harming the guards.
"Even if they were wanted men, there are procedures to get them without killing them," he said.
American officers are said to be preparing to meet neighborhood officials and families of the men who died. Iraqis are portraying that meeting as a time for the Americans to apologize.
"In two days we'll have a kind of meeting between the families of the victims with the Americans to talk about the incident," said Khalid Mawood, a member of a district council in northern Baghdad.
The men killed in the raid were Assad Cheloob Sabor, Heider Sattar Manshad and Hussein Hashim, according to the Ministry of Trade.
Ministry spokesman Hanoon said it was possible that the security guards were sleeping because the neighborhood is generally safe.
"It is their job to provide safety and security, and in this way they were killed," Hanoon said.
Ahmed Cheloob Sabor said that the death of his brother, Assad, had rocked his family. The 29-year-old guard had a wife and baby son.
"All the Iraqis have become used to being killed in many ways," Ahmed Cheloob Sabor said. "But this way, in their beds, is too much."
The security agreement replaces a U.N. mandate that has allowed U.S. forces to operate in Iraq since 2003. The U.N. voted Monday to let the mandate expire Dec. 31.
Ashton reports for The Modesto (Calif.) Bee