BAGHDAD Senior Iraqi government officials said Saturday that a U.S. Special Forces counterterrorism unit conducted the raid that reportedly killed a relative of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, touching off a high-stakes diplomatic crisis between the United States and Iraq.
U.S. military officials in Baghdad had no comment for the second day in a row, an unusual position for a command that typically releases information on combat operations within 24 hours.
The raid occurred at dawn Friday in the town of Janaja near al-Maliki's birthplace in the southern, mostly Shiite Muslim province of Karbala. Ali Abdulhussein Razak al-Maliki, who was killed in the raid, was related to the prime minister and had close ties to his personal security detail, according to authorities in Karbala.
The incident puts an added strain on U.S.-Iraqi negotiations to draft a Status of Forces Agreement, a long-term security pact that will govern the conduct of U.S. forces in Iraq. Members of the Iraqi government and security forces said the raid only deepened their reluctance to sign any agreement that did not leave Iraqis with the biggest say on when and how combat operations are conducted.
The U.S. military handed Iraqi forces control of Karbala security in October 2007. By the end of 2007 the U.S. military had transferred nine of the country's 18 provinces to Iraqi control.
"We are afraid now of signing the long-term pact between Iraq and America because of such unjustified violations by the troops. Handing over security in provinces doesn't mean anything to the American troops," said Mohamed Hussein al-Musawi, a senior Najaf-based member of the prime minister's Dawa Party. "We condemn these barbaric actions not only when they target a relative of Maliki's, but when any Iraqi is targeted in the same way."
Outrage over the mysterious operation has spread to the highest levels of the Iraqi government, which is demanding an explanation for how such a raid occurred in a province ostensibly under full Iraqi command.
"This is a Special Forces operation, an anti-terrorism unit that operates almost independently so there's been no coordination with the local forces on the ground," said a high-ranking member of the Iraqi government who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the extreme sensitivity of the issue. "That's why it's so important to have a Status of Forces Agreement to regulate this relationship. As long as it's vague and open, these incidents will continue to happen."
U.S. and Iraqi officials have been in difficult negotiations to draft a Status of Forces Agreement. Among the main sticking points are whether the U.S. military can stage combat operations without the consent of the Iraqi government and whether to grant immunity to American troops and security contractors.
Kurdish legislator Mahmoud Othman called Friday's operation "unacceptable" and said it had strained relations between the countries.
"This is a big embarrassment for Prime Minister Maliki because he was in that area two days before the incident, telling his people that we are the masters in our country and the decisions were ours to make," Othman said. "This is why we are afraid of agreements and immunity. ... If there are wanted people in any area, why not send an Iraqi force to do the job?"
Iraqi officials in Karbala said the operation began at dawn Friday with U.S. aircraft delivering dozens of American troops to the rural Shiite Muslim town of Janaja, which is populated mostly by members of the Maliki tribe. Authorities said the raid apparently was aimed at capturing what the military calls a "high-value target," often a reference to the leader of a militant cell.
Raed Shakir Jowdet, the Iraqi military commander of Karbala operations, told journalists Friday that the Americans had acted on faulty intelligence. He said four U.S. military helicopters and a jet fighter soared over the area that morning. About 60 U.S. ground forces then stormed the town, "terrifying the families," Jowdet said. At least one man was detained, though some Iraqi authorities said more were taken into custody.