BAGHDAD – Two U.S. soldiers were charged with the premeditated murder of three Iraqis, while 26 people died in American raids in Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood, the U.S. military said Saturday.
North of the capital, police said a homicide bomber exploded himself in a crowd of police recruits, killing at least 16 people and wounding 24. The attacker detonated his explosives belt Saturday in a market area outside a police station in Muqdadiyah, 90 kilometers (60 miles) north of Baghdad, a police officer said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.
The two American soldiers are accused of killing three Iraqis in separate incidents, then planting weapons on the victims' remains, the military said in a statement. Fellow soldiers reported the alleged crimes, which took place between April and this month in the vicinity of Iskandariyah, 50 kilometer (30 miles) south of Baghdad, it said.
The U.S. military on Saturday identified the soldiers as Staff Sgt. Michael A. Hensley from Candler, N.C., and Spc. Jorge G. Sandoval from Laredo, Texas.
Hensley is charged with three counts each of premeditated murder, obstructing justice and "wrongfully placing weapons with the remains of deceased Iraqis," the military said. He was placed in military confinement in Kuwait on Thursday.
Sandoval faces one count each of premeditated murder and placing a weapon with the remains of a dead Iraqi, a statement said. He was taken into custody Tuesday while at home in Texas, and was transferred to military confinement in Kuwait three days later, it said.
Both were assigned to the 1st Battalion, 501 Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, based at Fort Richardson, Alaska.
In Sadr City, the military said those killed were "terrorists" who attacked U.S. troops before dawn Saturday with small arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades and roadside bombs. But Iraqi police and hospital officials said all the dead were civilians killed in their homes.
"Everyone who got shot was shooting at U.S. troops at the time," said Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, a U.S. military spokesman. "It was an intense firefight."
The Iraqi officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of security concerns, put the death toll at eight, with 20 wounded.
Seventeen suspected militants also were detained in the operation, which consisted of two separate raids, the U.S. military said in a statement.
American troops entered the Shiite enclave in search of militants suspected of helping Iranian terror networks fund operations in Iraq, the statement said. There were no U.S. casualties, it said.
But witnesses said U.S. forces rolled into their neighborhood before dawn and opened fire without warning.
"At about 4 a.m., a big American convoy with tanks came and began to open fire on houses — bombing them," said Basheer Ahmed, who lives in Sadr City's Habibiya district. "What did we do? We didn't even retaliate — there was no resistance."
The raids centered on the Habibiya and Orfali districts of Sadr City, police said.
Sadr City is the Iraqi capital's largest Shiite neighborhood — home to some 2.5 million people. It is also the base of operations for the Mahdi Army, a militia loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The fighters are blamed for much of the sectarian killing in Baghdad.
Last year, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki banned military operations in Sadr City without his approval after complaints from his Shiite political allies.
But al-Maliki agreed that no area of the capital was off-limits after U.S. President George W. Bush ordered reinforcements to Iraq as part of the Baghdad security operation.
In the Shiite holy city of Najaf, a spokesman for al-Sadr condemned Saturday's raids.
"We reject these repeated assaults against civilians. The allegation that Mahdi Army members were the only ones targeted is baseless and wrong," said Sheik Salah al-Obaidi. "The bombing hurt only innocent civilians."
The U.S. military statement said soldiers riding in armored vehicles "used proper escalation of force rules to engage four civilian vehicles."
"You start with warnings and work your way up to firing on a vehicle," Garver said. "Every structure and vehicle that the troops on the ground engaged were being used for hostile intent," he said.
U.S. soldiers fired a barrage of bullets at one vehicle after it failed to yield at a checkpoint, Garver said. The other civilian cars were being used as a cover for insurgents, who hid behind them and fired on American forces, he said.
Some of the 26 victims were in civilian cars, some had been hiding behind the cars and others had fired on U.S. troops from nearby buildings, Garver said.
But according to Iraqi officials, the dead included three members of one family — a father, mother and son. Several women and children, along with two policemen, were among the wounded, they said.
One of the policemen, Montadhar Kareem, said he was on night duty in the Habibiya area when the raids began.
"At about dawn, American troops came with tanks and began bombing houses in the area," he said.
"The bombing became more intense, and I was injured by shrapnel in both my legs and in my left shoulder," Kareem said from a gurney at Al Sadr General Hospital.
Hours after the raids, a funeral procession snaked through the streets of Sadr City's Orfali district. Three coffins were hoisted atop cars.
One resident who goes by the nickname of Um Ahmed, or "mother of Ahmed," stood outside her home as mourners passed by.
"We are being hit while we are peacefully sleeping in our houses. Is that fair?" she cried. The woman gave only her nickname, because of security concerns.
Houses, a bakery and some other shops were damaged by fire from U.S. tanks during the operation, Iraqi officials said.
Later Saturday in northwest Baghdad's Shula neighborhood, dozens of men gathered to donate blood for the Sadr City victims.
"The Americans are not letting people live in peace, and there are lots of victims," said one of the donors, Murtada Abdul-Hassan.