Raid On Arms Smugglers in Iraq Kills 5 Villagers

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A joint raid by American and Iraqi security forces on suspected weapons smugglers in a village near the Iranian border on Friday has left at least five people dead, the U.S. military and Iraqi officials said.

There were conflicting reports following the fire fight between U.S.-backed Iraqi forces and gunmen south of Baghdad. The U.S. military said Iraqi forces killed five suspected militants, while a provincial official said at least 10 civilians were killed.

Iraqi security forces have been under heavy scrutiny following a string of embarrassing security lapses in recent months that have raised questions about their ability to take over as U.S. troops withdraw from the country.

The raid by American and Iraqi troops took place in Ali al-Sharqi, a village north of Amarra, some 200 miles southeast of Baghdad, the U.S. military said in a statement.

The U.S. military said suspected Iranian-backed Kateb Hezbollah fighters opened fire on Iraqi security forces during the raid. It said five militants were killed in the ensuing gun battle.

But Maytham Lafta, a Maysan provincial council lawmaker, said at least 10 people were killed — including two women — and five others were wounded. Lafta identified the dead as "all innocent people."

A provincial police official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information, also said 10 people were killed in the raid.

The discrepancy in the number of dead could not be immediately reconciled. The U.S. military did not immediately respond to a request seeking additional information.

Conflicting casualty counts are common in the aftermath of attacks in Iraq.

The U.S. military has repeatedly warned of a possible uptick in violence ahead of the national balloting on March 7. The official campaign period kicked off Friday.

Kateb Hezbollah, one of two major Iranian-backed Shiite militias operating in Iraq, has been the target in recent months of a number of joint U.S.-Iraqi military operations. The raids have been carried out primarily in southern Iraq near the Iranian border where militants are believed to smuggle weapons into Iraq.

Iran's government denies having any links to Shiite extremists in Iraq. But American officials believe the group is either controlled or backed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' elite Quds Brigade, which is believed to train Shiite militants from various Middle Eastern countries.