Iraqis say civilians killed; U.S. says attack hit militants

BAGHDAD, Iraq – An audacious cross-border ambush by Kurdish rebels based in northern Iraq killed at least 17 Turkish soldiers Sunday, ratcheting up pressure on the Turkish government to launch a military offensive into Iraq.

The pre-dawn attack took place as the U.S. military said its troops killed 49 fighters in Baghdad’s Sadr City neighborhood, one of the highest death tolls for a military operation since President Bush declared an end to active combat in 2003.

But Iraqi officials and residents of the vast Shiite enclave, loyal to powerful anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, said all of the victims were innocent civilians, including children. They warned that the attack could lead Sadr to rescind a suspension of his militia’s operations.

The unrelated spasms of violence on two fronts illustrated the highly combustible geopolitical and domestic challenges confounding the U.S. military, even as a temporary troop increase has succeeded in tamping down some of the violence in Iraq.

In Baghdad, the U.S. military and local residents offered different accounts of the raid into the heavily Shiite enclave of Sadr City, named for the father of Muqtada al-Sadr and a stronghold of his followers.

According to the military, U.S. troops entered the neighborhood at 4 a.m. to target a militia chief responsible for an extensive Iranian-backed kidnapping ring. His name was not released.

Gunmen then began firing automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades at the U.S. troops, the military said. It said ground forces returned fire, killing 33 fighters, then called in helicopter gunships, which killed six more.

As U.S. soldiers left the neighborhood at 7 a.m., they struck a roadside bomb but continued returning fire, killing 10 more, the military said. The target of the raid was not captured, and no U.S. troops were injured, military officials said.

But Sadr City residents and Iraqi officials said the only victims were civilians – whom they described as 13 dead and 52 injured.

“I have seen the dead children,” said Abu Zahara, an official in the local Sadr office. “We are a peaceful people. We are just sitting in our homes. We don’t want anything to do with the Americans. Just leave us alone.”

He said among the dead were a woman and four children, including a 4-year-old girl and a 2-year-old boy. Their 1-year-old brother was seriously wounded, he said.

“Why are the American soldiers fighting women and children?” said Abu Hawra, a local religious leader. “The American occupation forces started bombing the city for no reason.”

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said that the government would investigate the raid and that coordination between U.S. and Iraqi forces was necessary to prevent such “woeful incidents.”

Salah al-Obeidi, a spokesman for Sadr in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, called the raid a “barbaric action” and a “crime” that should lead to criminal charges. He said no one in Sadr City attacked the Americans because Sadr in August had ordered his powerful militia, the Mahdi Army, to stop all fighting for six months.

Obeidi said Sadr’s order remained in effect. But several of his followers in Sadr City said they expected the attack to increase pressure on him to lift the order.

Mohammed Chaloub, 38, who works in the Interior Ministry, said he watched the raid from his roof and saw the damage it left: a bombed-out primary school, several destroyed shops and 18 burned cars. U.S. gunfire prevented firefighting vehicles from reaching fire, he said.

He said Sadr City residents were furious at the U.S. troops. “If you woke up in the morning and saw your entire family killed and your house burned out, what would your reaction be?” he said. “Nobody would accept that.”

The raid on Turkish soldiers, among the deadliest attacks in recent memory, was carried out by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known by its Kurdish initials PKK. The armed group aims to create an independent Kurdish state out of parts of eastern Turkey, northern Iraq and western Iran.

Turkish officials said 16 soldiers were also wounded in the fighting in Hakkari province, which borders Iraq. Thirty-two Kurdish fighters were killed in subsequent clashes and 10 Turkish troops were still missing, they said.

Abdul Rahman al-Chaderchi, a PKK spokesman, said the Kurdish fighters attacked because Turkish troops were conducting war games late Saturday night near the border. He said that the death toll was higher than Turkey reported and that several soldiers were being held prisoner, but he declined to provide precise numbers.

“They tried to enter the Iraqi lands,” Chaderchi said. “But our fighters have confronted them.”

Senior Turkish military and government officials held emergency meetings Sunday night to decide on a response. Turkey’s parliament voted last week to give Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government authority for a military offensive into northern Iraq to pursue Kurdish fighters hiding there.

“Turkey does not have designs on Iraq’s territory,” Turkish President Abdullah Gul said after the attacks, according to the Anatolian news agency. “However, if Iraq keeps harboring terrorists, Turkey has the right to destroy this.”

At a news conference hours after the ambush, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who is Kurdish, ordered the guerrilla fighters to stop their attacks or leave Iraq. “We are against all the actions that are done by the PKK,” he said. “And we will not support the PKK. We want the best relations with Turkey.”

But he added: “The Turkish army with all its capabilities couldn’t arrest the leaders of the PKK. So how could we do that? It’s a dream that cannot be reached.”

Turkey continued to shell the area along the northern Iraqi border late Sunday, residents and officials said. Some villagers reported that the pesh merga, the military force of the Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq, was moving toward the border.

The Bush administration condemned the Kurdish assault. “These attacks are unacceptable and must stop now,” said Gordon Johndroe, President Bush’s national security spokesman.

Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish regional government, also condemned the attack but warned against a Turkish offensive into northern Iraq. “If this struggle touches the Kurdistan region, then we will defend our citizens,” he said.

Iraqi residents of the border area braced for more of the violence that has destroyed parts of their villages and forced some of them to flee. Sabiha Khalil, 54, a widowed farmer from the village of Spindar, said the fighting reminded her of the days of Saddam Hussein, when a government campaign killed as many as 180,000 Kurds and drove many more from their homes.

“Now Turkey is taking Saddam Hussein’s place,” she said. “We were displaced from our village for 10 years, but we have rebuilt our homes and rehabilitated our farms. Now where should we go?

Suleiman Hamid, 33, a farmer who also lives in Spindar, said shelling on Sunday caused his children to wake up screaming and destroyed several houses. Many of his neighbors have fled, he said.

“I don’t understand why the Turks are bombing us,” he said. “There is no PKK here. Is their main goal to target the PKK, or just any Kurds?”

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