Iraqis Dispute U.S. Airstrike Death Toll

Iraqi Defense Ministry spokesman Mohammed al-Askari shouts instructions to Iraqi Army soldiers to secure a street in a show of force in a militia stronghold that has seen some of the fiercest fighting in the southern city of Basra some about 340 miles south of Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, April 2, 2008. AP Photo/Nabil al-Jurani

A U.S. airstrike destroyed a house in the southern city of Basra, killing a militant, the military said Thursday. Iraqi police said six civilians were among the dead.

The attack came as the Iraqi government apparently shifted gears in its offensive against Shiite militias, staging more targeted raids instead of attacking the gunmen head-on after a week of fierce clashes that spread to Baghdad and other southern cities.

The U.S.-led coalition directed "aerial fires" against enemy forces fighting Iraqi troops Wednesday near the militia stronghold of Qibla in Basra, said Lt. David Russell, a military spokesman. That district that has seen some of the fiercest fighting in the offensive that began March 25.

Russell said one militant was killed and a house was destroyed. The military later confirmed that an American plane had conducted the strike.

An Iraqi police officer in Basra, speaking on condition of anonymity because of security concerns, said six civilians were killed and two wounded in an 8 p.m. strike against a house in Qibla.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi military said Thursday a suicide bomber had attacked an Iraqi checkpoint near Mosul, in northern Iraq, killing seven people and wounding 12. The U.S. military confirmed the Wednesday night attack but put the casualty toll at five dead and 19 wounded.

The blast has occurred in the Addayah area about 20 miles west of Mosul while Iraqi soldiers were checking vehicles. The dead include a woman and a 5-year-old child. Mosul is believed to be the last major urban center where al Qaeda maintains a substantial presence.

The deadly airstrike comes after accusations by followers of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr that the Iraqi army violated an Iranian-brokered agreement to pull his fighters off the streets.

Those complaints raised concern that fighting could flare again as the Iraqi government and Shiite militias maneuver for control of Basra - the country's oil capital 340 miles southeast of Baghdad and a major commercial center of 2 million people.

Violence in the Shiite south and in the north, where al Qaeda operates, illustrates the fragile state of security in Iraq as the U.S. moves to reduce its troop levels after five years of war.

Iraqi troops met no significant resistance as a dozen-vehicle convoy drove Wednesday into the Hayaniyah district of central Basra, scene of fierce clashes last week with al-Sadr's Mahdi Army fighters.

Troops set up checkpoints and searched a few houses before leaving the neighborhood after a couple of hours, witnesses said.

An Iraqi cameraman working for the U.S.-funded Alhurra satellite television station was shot in the leg as he filmed the operation in Hayaniyah.

Later, the camera operator, Mazin al-Tayar, told Alhurra by telephone that the soldiers faced "many roadside bombs and mortar rounds" during the operation, although there were no reports of military casualties.

One of the bombs exploded near a vehicle carrying the local Iraqi army commander, Lt. Gen. Mohan al-Fireji, but caused no injuries, according to Defense Ministry spokesman Mohammed al-Askari, who was traveling with the general.

The Basra joint operations center announced that Iraqi soldiers had detained two suspected militia figures in the Qibla area. A gun battle erupted during the raid and an Iraqi army vehicle was set on fire.

Nevertheless, Basra's provincial governor, Mohammed al-Waili, said the overall situation in the oil-rich city was "very calm and stable" and that normalcy was returning.

"We issued orders to all government employees to go to their offices starting from today and they will be obliged to work their full schedule," he said.

But Basra residents contacted by telephone said many people were fearful that the truce might not last.

In related developments:

  • A U.S. military spokesman admitted that some Iraqi security forces were not "up to the task" in the offensive against Shiite militias in Basra. Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner said he welcomed the Iraqi government's commitment to target criminals in Iraq's second-largest city but he conceded there were challenges.

  • The Pentagon says the U.S. military is spending about 153 million dollars a month in Iraq on fuel. Including, gasoline, diesel and jet fuel, the military is burning through more than 50 million gallons of fuel a month in Iraq. Some members of Congress are upset because that cost is coming at a time when Iraq itself is looking at a potential oil boom this year. The U.S. special inspector general for Iraq says Iraq's oil revenue could approach 60 billion dollars.

  • A roadside bomb targeting a U.S. convoy exploded Wednesday near a restaurant in Baghdad's main Shiite district of Sadr City, killing at least three Iraqi civilians and wounding 13, police said. A mortar shell slammed into a house in Sadr City late Wednesday, killing three members of one family, including two children and their grandmother, police said. Five people were injured.

  • Suspected al Qaeda in Iraq insurgents continued their campaign against fellow Sunnis who have joined forces with the Americans against the terror network. Four of the U.S.-allied fighters were killed Wednesday and four others abducted at a fake checkpoint near Duluiyah, 45 miles north of Baghdad, police said.
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