BAGHDAD – U.S. troops hunting for a suspected Al Qaeda in Iraq militant raided a house Friday and killed seven people, including three women, drawing an angry protest from Iraqi officials that all the victims were civilians.
The U.S. military said the raid in Adwar — a Sunni town 70 miles north of Baghdad and just south of Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit — targeted an extremist responsible for suicide attacks and roadside bombings.
Neighbors and Iraqi officials claimed all the dead were from a poor family that had been uprooted by sectarian violence and had no links to the insurgency. Iraq's government demanded that those responsible for the raid be punished.
The dispute comes as the United States and Iraq are negotiating a security agreement to replace the U.N. mandate for foreign forces, which expires at year's end. Iraqi negotiators have insisted on oversight of U.S. military operations and the lifting of blanket immunity for American troops and security contractors.
U.S. airstrikes and conflicting claims about civilian deaths have been common throughout the war, prompting public outrage and underscoring the challenges faced by American forces fighting enemies who live among the population and don't wear uniforms.
Iraq's largest Sunni Arab bloc denounced Friday's raid. "Even if, as they claim, a man attacked them, that does not give them the excuse to target women and children," said Salim Abdullah al-Jubouri, a spokesman for the Iraqi Accordance Front.
Dozens of people marched to the site chanting "God is great" and "We condemn this inhumane act."
Abdullah Hussein Jibara, deputy governor of Salahuddin province, said he did not accept the initial explanation given by the Americans.
"We think that this tragedy could have been avoided if there were real coordination between U.S. forces and Iraqi authorities," Jibara said. "We condemn this random targeting of civilians, including women and children."
The preacher of Adwar's main mosque, Amir al-Douri, called on the Iraqi government to take legal measures against the U.S. soldiers who carried out the raid and to demand a full explanation from the U.S. Army.
The toll in Friday's operation was the deadliest inflicted by U.S. forces in weeks, amid a relative calm due to security gains over the past year.
Much of those gains are attributed to the success of Iraq's awakening councils — groups of Sunni fighters, often including former insurgents, that have turned against al-Qaida in Iraq and allied with the United States.
A recording released late Friday, purportedly by al-Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Ayyub al-Masri — also known as Abu Hamza al-Muhajir — contained statements in which he admitted losing ground and blamed it on the betrayal of the Sunni councils.
"We admit bitterly that we lost many locations after ... the apostasy of the groups consisting (of) the political council of the resistance and its alliance with the Zionist occupation," al-Masri said, according to a transcript of the audio provided by U.S.-based monitoring group, SITE Intelligence.
"They were blessed eyes and supporters of the occupation, especially that they were mixed with us, and we considered them brothers in the faith till they stabbed us in the back," al-Masri added.
The authenticity of the recording — which SITE said was posted on Web sites often used for terror-related messages — couldn't be verified nor was it clear when it was made. Al-Masri was reported captured by Iraqi troops in the northern city of Mosul in May but the U.S. military in Baghdad never confirmed the arrest.
Al-Masri took over al-Qaida in Iraq after its leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was killed in 2006 in a U.S. airstrike, but any direct links remain murky between al-Masri's insurgents and Osama bin Laden's terror network.
Despite the relative calm, attacks persist. On Monday, a suicide bomber blew herself up among police officers northeast of Baghdad, killing at least 22 people. In a separate attack that day, car bombs in Baghdad killed 13.
According to the U.S. command, troops acting on tips surrounded a house believed to be holding the suspected insurgent leader. They called for those inside to surrender during an hourlong standoff, but opened fire when an armed man appeared in a doorway, killing the main suspect, the command said.
The troops then called in an airstrike that killed three other suspected insurgents and three women, the military said, adding that an Iraqi child was pulled from the rubble and taken to a U.S. base for medical treatment.
Most of the house was demolished and a pair of women's slippers lay near bloodstained ground, according to AP Television News video. Relatives wept as blanket-covered bodies were loaded onto pickups to be driven to the hospital.
"Sadly, this incident again shows that the AQI (al-Qaida in Iraq) terrorists repeatedly risk the lives of innocent women and children to further their evil work," a military spokesman, Col. Jerry O'Hara, said.
Iraqi police and hospital officials put the death toll at eight and some said two men and a woman were shot down at the gate as they tried to surrender.
Police Capt. Mohammed al-Douri, who reported five men and three women killed, said one of the dead was Ali Hassan Ali, a truck driver. Ali called the police station about 2 a.m. to say U.S. troops had surrounded the house and opened fire, al-Douri said.
"He told us that the Americans were using loudspeakers ordering them to go out of the house, then the call was cut," al-Douri said.
Tribal chief Sheik Faris al-Fadaam said the family moved from Baghdad more than two years ago after the head of the household, Hassan Ali, was killed because he was a Sunni policeman.
"The family was very poor," al-Fadaam said. "The family came here and we helped them to rent that house. It was an extended family. They did not have any political affiliations. They did not engage in any hostile activity or have any connection with gunmen."