BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – A U.S. air strike north of the capital Wednesday killed 11 people – most of them women and children, said police and relatives of the victims. The U.S. military said it captured the target of the raid, a man suspected of supporting al-Qaida fighters. But the military said only four people were killed – a man, two women and a child.

“Troops were engaged by enemy fire as they approached the building,” said Tech. Sgt. Stacy Simon, a military spokeswoman. “Coalition forces returned fire utilizing both air and ground assets.”

Police Capt. Laith Mohammed said the attack near Balad, 50 miles north of Baghdad, involved U.S. warplanes and armor that flattened a house in the village of Isahaqi. An Associated Press reporter at the scene said the roof of the house had collapsed, three cars were destroyed and two cows were killed.

Relatives said the 11 victims were wrapped in blankets and driven in three pickup trucks to the Tikrit General Hospital, about 45 miles to the north.

AP photographs showed the bodies of two men, five children and four other covered figures arriving at the hospital accompanied by grief-stricken relatives. The victims were covered in dust with bits of rubble tangled in their hair.

Riyadh Majid, who identified himself as the nephew of Faez Khalaf, the head of the household who was killed, told AP at the hospital that U.S. forces landed in helicopters and raided the home early Wednesday.

Khalaf’s brother, Ahmed, said nine of the victims were family members who lived at the house and two were visitors.

“The dead family was not part of the resistance, they were women and children,” he said. “The Americans have promised us a better life, but we get only death.”

The U.S. military said they caught the target of the raid, man suspected of supporting foreign fighters of the al-Qaida in Iraq terror network.

On the eve of the first session of Iraq’s new parliament and within days of the 3rd anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion, vehicles were banned from Baghdad’s streets to prevent car bombings. Politicians reported a stalemate over the next government.

The U.S. military dispatched a battalion of soldiers from the 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division – about 700 troops – to Iraq from its base in Kuwait to provide extra security for Shiite holy cities as tens of thousands of pilgrims converged for a major religious commemoration that came under attack in the two previous years.

Monday marks the end of the 40-day mourning period after the death of Imam Hussein in 680 A.D. He was the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and was killed in Karbala in present-day Iraq, now the site of massive Shiite pilgrimages to mark the date.

Authorities in one of the Shiite holy cities, Karbala, imposed a six-day driving ban starting Thursday in a bid to protect pilgrims this year.

Gen. George W. Casey, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, also linked the deployment to the attempt to form a government.

“I have discussed this with the Iraqi prime minister, and we found it prudent to provide this additional support. This short-term deployment will make a long-term contribution to Iraq’s security and political progress,” Casey said in a statement.

Continuing divisions among lawmakers over the government suggested the Thursday session of the legislature may do little more than swear in members elected in landmark elections three months earlier.

There was little sign of progress after a second full day of meetings among leaders of the major political blocs, sessions brokered by U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and designed to speed agreement on the shape of the next government.

“I expect that there still will be difficulties over choosing the prime minister,” said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish politician who was in Wednesday’s session.

Khalilzad has been pressing political leaders to reach agreement on a national unity government, under which the country’s majority Shiite Muslims would share Cabinet posts equitably with minority Sunnis and Kurds.

The Americans see that as the best opportunity for blunting the insurgency that has ravaged the country since 2003. If a strong central government were in place, Washington had hoped to start removing some troops by summer.

In other violence Wednesday, the military said a U.S. soldier was killed by mortar fire southwest of Baghdad.

At least 2,311 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

Bomb blasts also killed at least five people and wounded dozens Wednesday in Baghdad and north of the capital.

AP-ES-03-15-06 1739EST


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