KABUL, Afghanistan – A U.S. investigation into U.N. and Afghan allegations that dozens of civilians were killed during an operation in a small village found Tuesday that up to seven civilians died but that the overwhelming majority of the dead were Taliban.
An Afghan government commission concluded that 90 civilians were killed in the Aug. 22 fighting in Azizabad — a claim backed by a preliminary U.N. report. The U.S. report Tuesday said 30 to 35 of those killed were Taliban fighters.
The civilian death claims in Azizabad have caused new friction between President Hamid Karzai and his Western supporters. Karzai has long castigated Western military commanders over civilian deaths resulting from their raids.
The U.S. report said American and Afghan forces took fire from militants while approaching Azizabad. The incoming fire "justified use of well-aimed small-arms fire and close air support to defend the combined force," the report said.
The U.S. said its range in casualty numbers was determined by observation of enemy movements during the engagement and on-site observations immediately after the battle. It said a known Taliban commander, Mullah Siddiq, and five to seven civilians were among the dead. Two civilians were wounded. Five Taliban were detained, the report said.
The report left open the possibility that evidence could emerge to prove that more people died in Azizabad. "No other evidence that may have been collected by other organizations was provided to the U.S. Investigating Officer and therefore could not be considered in the findings," the report said.
No conclusive photos or video have been made public to back the claim of 90 civilians killed. However, Nek Mohammad Ishaq, a provincial council member in Herat and a member of the Afghan commission, has said photographs and video of the victims were with Afghanistan's secretive intelligence service.
The U.S. report said that investigators discovered evidence that the militants planned to attack a nearby coalition base. Evidence collected included weapons, explosives, intelligence materials and an access badge to the base, as well as photographs from inside and outside the base, the report said.
The report said that the investigating officer watched video of the engagement and looked at topographic photo comparisons of the area before and after, including burial sites.
Karzai ratcheted up pressure on Western militaries after the fighting in Azizabad by ordering a review of whether the U.S. and NATO should be allowed to use airstrikes or carry out raids in villages. Karzai also called for an updated "status of force" agreement between the Afghan government and foreign militaries.
Claims of civilian deaths can be tricky. Relatives of Afghan victims are given condolence payments by Karzai's government and the U.S. military, providing an incentive to make false claims. U.S. officials also say Taliban militants force civilians to make false claims as part of their propaganda war against the West.
And Taliban militants have increasingly adopted the tactic of firing from civilian homes or hiding among normal Afghans.
"The enemy knowingly hides behind women and children, they dress in burqas," Maj. Gen. Jeffery J. Schloesser told The Associated Press on Monday. "The enemy makes it extraordinarily difficult to avoid civilian casualties. We don't even know it (civilian casualties occurred) until they fighting is over."
The top NATO spokesman in Afghanistan, Brig. Gen. Richard Blanchette, told The Associated Press on Saturday that the U.S.-led coalition, Afghan government and U.N. would investigate the raid. No Afghan officials have confirmed that the Afghan government would take part in a three-way investigation.
A member of Afghanistan's investigating commission, Mohammad Iqbal Safi, a member of parliament, said the U.S. report would not change the finding of the Afghan body. He said many Afghan households have weapons, but that doesn't make them militants.
"Again I want to emphasize that all the victims were civilians, and there were no Taliban among the dead," Safi said. "All the men killed in the operation were the employees of the private security company working at the coalition base. So how could they be Taliban?"
Ahmad Nader Nadery, the head of Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission, has said that a villager named Reza, whose compound bore the brunt of the attack, had a private security company that worked for the U.S. military at nearby Shindand airport.
Villagers and officials have said the operation was based on faulty information provided by Reza's rival, Nader Tawakal. Attempts to locate Tawakal have failed. Aziz Ahmad Nadem, a member of parliament from Herat, has told the AP that Tawakal is now being protected by the U.S. military.
Afghan officials say U.S. special forces and Afghan commandos raided the village while hundreds of people were gathered in a large compound for a memorial service honoring a tribal leader, Timor Shah, who was killed eight months ago by Tawakal. Reza, who was killed in the Aug. 22 operation, is Shah's brother