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 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 of people 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.
Iraq has not seen any street protests over the Quran shooting, which took place earlier this month in a Sunni Arab area west of Baghdad. But Iraqi leaders have loudly 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.
The incidents come as Iraqi forces have launched a series of campaigns to impose their control in areas dominated by armed groups. On May 10, they began a sweep of the northern city of Mosul to root out al-Qaida in Iraq and other Sunni insurgents.
On Tuesday some 10,000 Iraqi soldiers and police deployed in Baghdad's Shiite stronghold of Sadr City, which for years was the unquestioned bastion of the Mahdi Army, loyal to anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The deployment has gone peacefully after a truce reached after weeks of fighting between the Mahdi Army and U.S.-Iraqi forces.
But militia violence has increased in neighboring parts of eastern Baghdad. For the second night in a row, clashes erupted in the nearby district of Obeidi late Wednesday. Iraqi police officials said three civilians were killed in the fighting, including an Iraqi television cameraman, Wissam Ali Auda, of Afaq TV.
Auda, 30, was apparently caught in the crossfire on his way home, said Tariq Maher, a correspondent for Afaq TV, which is affiliated with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa party. The police officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.
A second journalist was killed north of Baghdad. The bullet-riddled body of Hashim al-Hussein, a correspondent for the Sharq newspaper, was found dumped near the city of Baqouba, police and morgue officials said.
Al-Hussein, 35, was kidnapped Tuesday near his home in the Tahrir area, a former al-Qaida in Iraq stronghold in Baqouba that has recently seen a decline in violence, and his body was found in nearby Buhriz, the officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.
Excluding the two deaths reported Thursday, at least 127 journalists and 50 media workers have been killed in Iraq since the war started, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
Meanwhile, al-Maliki met with the country's most influential Shiite spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, on Thursday to discuss his government crackdowns. Besides the Mosul and Sadr City operations, Iraqi troops have been conducting a sweep in the southern city of Basra since late March, targeting Shiite militiamen.
Al-Maliki met al-Sistani at the cleric's office in the southern Shiite city of Najaf. Afterward, the prime minister suggested that the ayatollah who does not talk to journalists condones his government's moves to rein in armed groups.
"The religious authority always takes care of Iraq and its affairs, but it doesn't get into the details," al-Maliki told reporters. "It recommends that weapons must be only in the government's hand and it recommends as well respect for the government's dignity."
Al-Maliki also discussed upcoming provincial elections along with negotiations over a long-term security agreement with the Americans that is expected to replace a U.N. mandate later this year, according to the adviser, Yassin Majid.
Al-Sistani, who has enormous influence among Iraq's Shiite majority, has called on the government to "be careful" to protect the interest of Iraqis in the negotiations.