U.S. strikes killed pro-U.S. Iraq fighters - officer

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - A group of gunmen killed in U.S. airstrikes in Iraq last week were pro-U.S. fighters, an American military officer said on Sunday, despite the military's public statements that they were insurgents.

The officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said U.S. military officials had talked to Sunni Arab tribal sheikhs in Taji, just north of Baghdad, to express their regret for the loss of life in the attack, which took place last Tuesday.

"There was some confusion and we were not able to turn off the attack quickly enough," he said of the airstrikes that continued for several hours despite frantic phone calls from local tribal leaders to the U.S. base in Taji.

"We have talked to them and explained our sorrow over the incident and the loss of lives of volunteers trying to bring order to their neighbourhoods," the officer said.

The incident threatens to derail a carefully constructed relationship between U.S. forces and anti-al Qaeda Sunni tribes in Taji and has put the spotlight on operating procedures for tribal police units the U.S. military is forming around Iraq.

"If they (the U.S. military) do not give us a proper reason for what happened, we will withdraw from the Awakening Council and let al Qaeda return," said Sheikh Shathir Abid Salim, leader of the anti-al Qaeda group. His brother was among those killed.

The military said in a statement last week that it killed 25 suspected insurgents in operations targeting al Qaeda militants near the capital. Tribal leaders told Reuters U.S. warplanes had mistakenly bombed their men, killing 45.

The U.S. military officer told Reuters the men targeted in the airstrikes were a mixture of volunteers from the Taji Awakening Council and tribesmen loyal to Sheikh Shathir.
source: reuters.com