BAGHDAD, Iraq – The U.S. military is investigating reports Wednesday that troops shot and killed two Iraqi women — one on the verge of giving birth — after their car failed to stop at a checkpoint north of Baghdad.
Iraqi officials and relatives say the incident in Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, happened when Nabiha Nisaif Jassim, 35, was being rushed to the hospital by her brother.
Jassim, the mother of two children, and her 57-year-old cousin, Saliha Mohammed Hassan, were killed by the U.S. forces, according to police Capt. Laith Mohammed and witnesses.
The U.S. military said coalition troops fired at the car after it entered a clearly marked prohibited area near an observation post but failed to stop despite repeated visual and auditory warnings.
"Shots were fired to disable the vehicle," the military said in a statement e-mailed to The Associated Press. "Coalition forces later received reports from Iraqi police that two women had died from gunshot wounds ... and one of the females may have been pregnant."
"The loss of life is regrettable and coalition forces go to great lengths to prevent them," the military said of the incident.
Jassim's brother, who was wounded by broken glass, said he did not see any warnings as he sped his sister to the hospital. Her husband was waiting for her there.
"I was driving my car at full speed because I did not see any sign or warning from the Americans. It was not until they shot the two bullets that killed my sister and cousin that I stopped," he said. "God take revenge on the Americans and those who brought them here. They have no regard for our lives."
He said doctors tried but failed to save the baby after his sister was brought to the hospital.
The shooting deaths occurred in the wake of an investigation into allegations that U.S. Marines killed unarmed civilians in the western city of Haditha. The city is in the heart of the so-called Sunni Triangle and has in the past seen heavy insurgent activity.
The women's bodies were wrapped in sheets and lying on stretchers outside the Samarra General Hospital before being taken to the morgue, while residents pointed to bullet holes on the windshield of a car and a pool of blood on the seat.
Khalid Nisaif Jassim, the pregnant woman's brother, said American forces had blocked off the side road only two weeks ago and news about the observation post had been slow to filter out to rural areas.
He said the killings, like those in Haditha, were examples of random killings faced by Iraqis every day.
The killings at Haditha, a city that has been plagued by insurgents, came after a bomb rocked a military convoy on Nov. 19, killing a Marine. Rep. John Murtha (news, bio, voting record), D-Pa., a decorated war veteran who has been briefed by military officials, has said Marines shot and killed unarmed civilians in a taxi at the scene and went into two homes and shot others.
Military investigators have evidence that points toward unprovoked murders by Marines, a senior defense official said last week.
In his first public comments on the incident, President Bush said he was troubled by the allegations, and that, "If in fact laws were broken, there will be punishment."
Former Iraqi Foreign Minister Adnan Pachachi told the BBC that the allegations have "created a feeling of great shock and sadness and I believe that if what is alleged is true — and I have no reason to believe it's not — then I think something very drastic has to be done."
"There must be a level of discipline imposed on the American troops and change of mentality which seems to think that Iraqi lives are expendable," said Pachachi, a member of parliament.
If confirmed as unjustified killings, the episode could be the most serious case of criminal misconduct by U.S. troops during three years of combat in Iraq. Until now the most infamous occurrence was the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse involving Army soldiers, which came to light in April 2004 and which Bush said he considered to be the worst U.S. mistake of the entire war.
Once the military investigation is completed, perhaps in June, it will be up to a senior Marine commander in Iraq to decide whether to press charges of murder or other violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
The incident has sparked two investigations — one into the deadly encounter itself and another into whether it was the subject of a cover-up. The Marine Corps had initially attributed 15 civilian deaths to the car bombing and a firefight with insurgents, eight of whom the Marines reported had been killed.
"People in Samarra are very angry with the Americans not only because of Haditha case but because the Americans kill people randomly specially recently," Khalid Nisaif Jassim said.