BAGHDAD — A U.S. helicopter strike north of Baghdad killed eight civilians, including several children, an Iraqi police official said Thursday. The U.S. military said the assault targeted al-Qaida fighters but acknowledged that children died.
Associated Press TV News footage showed the bodies of three children in blood-drenched clothes, along with the bodies of five men, at the hospital in Beiji, where the dead were taken after Wednesday evening’s strike.
Beiji police Col. Mudhher al-Qaisi said the eight were civilian farmers who were fleeing in their vehicle from an area outside the town where U.S. forces were conducting raids. He said the helicopter crew became suspicious of the vehicle and opened fire.
The U.S. military said American forces were targeting an al-Qaida in Iraq weapons storage facility believed connected to a suicide bombing network. It said the helicopter opened fire on the vehicle when some of its occupants “exhibited hostile intent,” and that children in the vehicle were killed.
The military statement did not specify the total number killed or elaborate on how the vehicle showed hostile intent. It and al-Qaisi said two children were killed, and the reason for the discrepancy with the footage from the hospital was not known.
The U.S. 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 and engage only hostile threats,” said spokesman Col. Jerry O’Hara in the statement.
The civilian deaths could strain ties between the U.S. military and Sunni Arabs who have turned against al-Qaida in Iraq and have joined American forces in fighting Sunni insurgents in regions west and north of Baghdad. Beiji, 155 miles north of Baghdad, lies in a largely Sunni Arab area.
The strike comes as the U.S. is 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, a protest over the Quran shooting turned violent, leaving a NATO soldier and two demonstrators dead, after protesters began throwing stones at police and troops, a NATO spokesman said. Police opened fire on the protesters, killing two. The soldier was also killed by gunfire but it was not clear by whom.