BAGHDAD - A U.S. helicopter strike north of Baghdad killed eight people in a vehicle, including at least two children, Iraqi officials said yesterday, insisting all the dead were civilians. The U.S. military said six were al-Qaeda in Iraq militants but acknowledged children were killed.
It was the latest incident threatening to alienate Sunni Arabs, who have played a key role in the decline in violence by joining forces with the Americans against al-Qaeda in Iraq. Beiji, an oil hub 155 miles north of Baghdad, lies in a largely Sunni Arab area.
The Wednesday evening strike came as the United States was trying to ease Iraqi anger over the shooting of a copy of the Quran by an American sniper, who used Islam's holy book for target practice.
In Afghanistan yesterday, a NATO soldier and two demonstrators were killed at a protest over the Quran shooting.
Iraq has not seen any street protests over the Quran shooting, which took place this month in a Sunni area west of Baghdad. Iraqi leaders have denounced the act, prompting a series of apologies from U.S. military commanders and President Bush. The U.S. military says the sniper was disciplined and removed from Iraq.
In the attack near Beiji, the military said its forces were targeting members of an al-Qaeda in Iraq suicide-bombing network. The forces engaged the occupants of a vehicle after they refused to surrender and "exhibited hostile intent."
It said five suspected terrorists died along with two children in the vehicle. A sixth militant was killed in a field nearby, according to a statement.
Beiji Police Col. Mudhher al-Qaisi said the dead were six civilian farmers and two children who were fleeing in their vehicle from the area after the U.S. forces launched their raids. He said a U.S. helicopter became suspicious of their vehicle and opened fire on it.
"The residents feel angry now over this act by the American troops," Qaisi said. "The victims were unarmed and work as farmers."
Mohammed al-Shimmari, who lives in the area, said the raid took place when a group of his relatives gathered at the home of his cousin after hearing he would be released soon from U.S. custody. He said the Americans were holding the cousin on suspicion of insurgent ties.
When U.S. forces launched a raid on the house, those inside fled. They included the group of eight in a minibus, which was then struck by the helicopter, Shimmari said.
The U.S. military refused to confirm the mode of attack or specify what weapons were used, saying only that its forces "engaged the target vehicle's occupants."
A U.S. spokesman, Col. Jerry O'Hara, said the military "sincerely regrets when any innocent civilians are injured, resulting from terrorists locating themselves in and around them. We take every precaution to protect innocent civilians."