Pentagon Probes Possible Friendly Fire Deaths in Iraq

Three Army soldiers who were gunned down during an intensive, three-hour firefight in the Salahuddin province north of Baghdad last week, may have died from friendly fire, military officials said Tuesday.

The three 101st Airborne Division soldiers were part of an Army company that was attacked by as many as 15 insurgents on Jan. 8, after discovering several large caches of explosives.

Military officials said the incident is being investigated to determine whether the soldiers were killed by shots from the enemy or by U.S. forces, including members of their unit and aircraft called in for backup later in the battle.

A detailed account of the incident was described by several officials to The Associated Press. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is not complete.

The three soldiers were part of Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team. They were searching buildings southwest of Samarra early that Tuesday morning when they found more than 1,000 pounds of homemade explosives, two 55-gallon barrels rigged to blow up, a roadside bomb, and bullets and bomb-making materials.

Soon afterward they found that a second building was also filled with explosives, guns, ammunition and a disassembled suicide vest.

According to reports, the soldiers continued searching the area, and later discovered four vehicles loaded with explosives. And at that point they determined that there were at least two insurgents hiding nearby.

When they moved in on the insurgents, reports said the soldiers discovered an extensive tunnel and trench network that was being defended by 10 to 15 of the enemy, who attacked the company with mortars, grenades and guns.

The two sides fought for about three hours, escalating to a massive battle with U.S. aircraft blasting the insurgents with rockets, several 500-pound bombs and .50-caliber guns.

At some point during the fight, soldiers discovered that two members of their unit -- Pfc. Ivan E. Merlo, 19, of San Marcos, Calif., and Pfc. Phillip J. Pannier, 20, of Washburn, Ill. had been killed. Three others were injured, and one of them -- Sgt. David J. Hart, 22, of Lake View Terrace, Ca. -- died later.

The names of the injured soldiers have not been -- and are not routinely -- released. It is not clear how many enemy insurgents were killed.