Furious Iraq demands apology as US troops are cleared of massacre
AMERICA'S alliance with the new Iraqi government was plunged into major crisis last night as the country's prime minister and its people reacted with fury to the US military clearing its forces of killing civilians during operations against insurgents.
Iraqi leaders vowed to press on with their own probe into one of the most notorious American raids against extremist fighters, in the town of Ishaqi, rejecting the US military's exoneration of its forces.
Adnan al-Kazimi, an aide to prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, said the government would also demand an apology from the United States and compensation for the victims in several cases, including the alleged massacre in the town of Haditha last year.
The escalation in tensions comes as sources at the Foreign Office confirmed that the British Government is also urging the Americans to co-operate fully with comprehensive investigations into the deaths at both Ishaqi and Haditha.
A report filed by Iraqi police accused US troops of rounding up and deliberately shooting 11 people - including five children and four women - in a house in Ishaqi, before blowing up the building. Video footage revealed by the BBC appeared to show the aftermath of US action in Ishaqi, including a number of dead adults and children with what experts claimed were clearly gunshot wounds.
But following its own inquiries into the Ishaqi operation, the Pentagon enraged Iraqi officials by issuing a statement declaring that allegations that US troops "executed a family ... and then hid the alleged crimes by directing an air strike, are absolutely false".
US spokesman Major General William Caldwell said the US investigation into events in Ishaqi, where the military says it was attempting to capture insurgents, had found no wrongdoing on the part of the troops.
He said troops had been fired on as they raided a house to arrest an al-Qaeda suspect. They returned fire and called in air support, which destroyed the building, killing one militant and resulting in "up to nine collateral deaths".
The military had previously said one guerrilla, two women and a child were killed in the March 15 raid in the town, which is in the US-controlled zone, 60 miles north of Baghdad.
The Americans have repeatedly pledged to punish any soldier found guilty of atrocities in Iraq. But the decision to clear the troops in Ishaqi fuelled deep mistrust among ordinary Iraqis, three years after the US-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein.
Police in Ishaqi say five children, four women and two men were shot in the head, and that the bodies, with hands bound, were dumped in one room before the house was blown up.
"We have it from more than one source that the Ishaqi killings were carried out under questionable circumstances," al-Kazimi said yesterday. "More than one child was killed. This [US] report was not fair for the Iraqi people and the children who were killed."
Al-Maliki, who took office two weeks ago at the helm of a US-backed national unity government, is battling a widespread public perception that US troops can shoot and kill with impunity and Iraqi leaders are too weak to do anything about it. Last week he criticised coalition forces for what he described as habitual attacks against civilians.
"Ishaqi is just another reason why we shouldn't trust the Americans," said Abdullah Hussein, an engineer in Baghdad. "First they lied about the weapons of mass destruction, then there was the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal and now it's clear to the world they were guilty in Haditha."
A tribal leader in Ishaqi said it was clear that US forces were above the law in Iraq.
"We expect the American soldiers to commit any crime to control this country," added Sarhan Jasim, 55.
Human rights minister Wijdan Michael said her ministry would send a fact-finding commission to Ishaqi in the next few days.
A Foreign Office insider confirmed last night that the British Government had become increasingly concerned about the series of allegations against US forces.
"It must be stressed that there is no conclusive proof that any of these allegations are true," she said. "But we have to be aware of them, and the Americans have to be aware of them and we are impressing upon them the need to investigate them to everyone's satisfaction whenever they arise.
"We only need to remember the incidents of abuse at Abu Graib and how damaging they were. It is in no one's interests to have these things going on."
The Ishaqi incident was one of a handful involving civilian deaths being investigated by the US military, including the deaths of two dozen civilians in the town of Haditha on November 19 last year.
US officials say murder charges may be brought against Marines after the probe into Haditha, which some commentators are comparing to the 1968 My Lai massacre in Vietnam.
Al-Maliki this week condemned the suspected massacre in Haditha as a "terrible crime" and demanded that the United States hand over the files on the investigation.
White House spokesman Tony Snow said US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and the top US commander in Iraq, General George Casey, met al-Maliki in Baghdad on Friday and promised to give him all the evidence and materials from the Haditha probe.
In the statement about Ishaqi, Caldwell said the investigation showed that the ground commander "operated in accordance with the rules of engagement governing our combat forces in Iraq".
But one man in the town, 40-year-old Obeid Kamil, said that US soldiers had a "licence to kill" Iraqi civilians.
"Their action is always to open fire and kill people, which is proof that they are afraid," he said.
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