18 Killed as Gunmen Attack Shiite Neighborhood

Iraqi forces backed by a U.S. helicopter battled Sunni gunmen south of Baghdad, and at least 11 combatants died. U.S. troops killed five Iraqis — including two women and a child — in a separate exchange of fire.

An extended ban on vehicles held down violence Friday in Baghdad after one of the most violent weeks in the capital this year, but four people were wounded by a bomb outside a Sunni mosque, police said.

The deadly firefight occurred in two mostly Shiite neighborhoods of Mahmoudiya, a town 20 miles south of Baghdad where 50 people were killed in a market this week in an attack by Sunni gunmen.

CountryWatch: Iraq

At about 1:30 p.m. Friday, gunmen opened fire in two neighborhoods of Mahmoudiya and Iraqi security forces responded, Capt. Ibrahim Abdullah said.

A U.S. military statement said 11 people were killed — five gunmen, three Iraqi soldiers and three policemen. An Iraqi statement put the death toll at 18 — 11 attackers, four soldiers and three policemen. The difference could not be reconciled.

A U.S. attack helicopter was called in to provide air support and destroyed a truck used by the gunmen, U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Barry Johnson said.

"This effective suppression of an apparent death squad by the Iraqi security forces, assisted by the coalition, shows exactly how security forces are working together to stop the violence," Johnson said.

The civilian deaths came in an early morning raid in Baqouba, 55 kilometers (35 miles) northeast of Baghdad, where American troops were looking for associates of Al Qaeda in Iraq, the U.S. military said.

The Americans took fire from a rooftop and "several men were seen moving around," the military said in a statement. The troops ordered people to leave the building, but "these instructions were ignored," it said.

A U.S. aircraft fired on the building, and "a third attempt to call the occupants out of the buildings then failed before force was escalated," the statement added. "The troops secured the area using a combination of aerial and ground fire."

The bodies of two men, two women and a young girl were found in the rubble, the U.S. military said. They included two of the girl's aunts, an uncle and a grandfather, police said. They did not know about the child's parents.

"We regret that civilians are hurt or killed while coalition forces search to rid Iraq of terrorism," the military said. "Terrorists continue to deliberately place innocent Iraqi women and children in danger by their actions and presence."

After the attack, neighbors milled about the wreckage of the concrete building, peering at shrapnel marks on the walls.

"I came running barefoot and saw the catastrophe," said a grizzle-faced man wearing a red-and-white Arab headdress. Another man said: "Is this the democracy they promised us? If there is terrorism in the world, it is American terrorism."

The acknowledgment of the civilian deaths follows a string of allegations that U.S. soldiers in Iraq have killed unarmed civilians. Five soldiers and one former soldier face charges in the alleged March 12 rape-slaying of an Iraqi teenager and three members of her family in Mahmoudiya.

A U.S. Marine was killed in action Friday in western Iraq, the U.S. military said. The Marine was assigned to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. It was the 24th death this month among U.S. forces in Iraq. At least 2,558 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

The Baghdad area recorded an average of 34 major bombings and shootings for the week ending July 13, the U.S. military said. That was up 40 percent from the daily average of 24 registered between June 14 and July 13.

Much of the violence was due to sectarian attacks. Months of worsening violence has heightened tensions between Shiites and Sunnis and deepened the distrust between Iraq's two main religious communities.

After prayers Friday, hundreds of Sunnis gathered in front of Baghdad's most sacred Sunni shrine to demand that the government replace the army battalion stationed in their neighborhood, accusing the mostly Shiite soldiers of sectarian prejudice.

A government committee formed to ease sectarian tensions plans to hold its first meeting Saturday. The Supreme National Committee for Reconciliation and National Dialogue will be comprised of about 30 members, including legislators, religious and tribal leaders, said Hassan al-Suneid.

The committee was formed in response to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's 24-point national reconciliation plan, which he released shortly after taking office in May. The plan includes an amnesty program for insurgents not involved in killing Iraqis or multinational forces.

Al-Maliki will discuss reconciliation and improving security in Iraq with U.S. President George W. Bush when he visits Washington next week, a senior Bush administration official said in Washington.

Their talks also will focus on the development of Iraqi security forces, reforms needed within the ministry of interior, the Iraqi economic plan and al-Maliki's personal diplomacy with leaders in the region, the official said.