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Originally published Thursday, November 15, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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U.S. forces accused of killing Sunni allies

Members of a Sunni Muslim group, formed with U.S. backing to fight Sunni militants, charged Wednesday that a lengthy U.S. air and ground attack...

McClatchy Newspapers

BAGHDAD — Members of a Sunni Muslim group, formed with U.S. backing to fight Sunni militants, charged Wednesday that a lengthy U.S. air and ground attack killed at least seven of its fighters.

Mansour abd Salem, one of the leaders of the Sunni Awakening council in Taji, north of Baghdad, charged in a television interview that U.S. forces had "deliberately" killed members of the group in a "hideous" assault.

The U.S. military said the operations targeted armed "associates of senior al-Qaida in Iraq leaders," killed 25 suspected terrorists and detained 21 suspects.

Meanwhile in Baghdad, the U.S.-backed Iraqi government seized the offices and shut down the radio station of the Association of Muslim Scholars, a major Sunni group that has voiced support for al-Qaida.

The group once claimed to speak for more than 3,000 Sunni clerics in Iraq. But its influence has waned, and most clerics have cut ties to the group.

U.S. forces have enlisted local groups such as the Sunni Awakening council to battle al-Qaida in Iraq, but the attack in Taji threatens to revive Sunni hostility toward the United States, which toppled Saddam Hussein's regime, disbanded the Sunni-led Iraqi military and barred members of Saddam's Baath party, most of them Sunnis, from government jobs.

Iraqi and U.S. accounts of the attack differ completely.

Abd Salem of the Sunni council said that U.S. aerial attacks began at 10 p.m. Tuesday and that his brother, Malek abd Salem, contacted U.S. troops in Taji and asked them to stop. At 1 a.m., he said, his brother spoke again with the U.S. military.

Four hours later, he told Al-Jazeera Arabic Satellite News, aerial attacks resumed, and U.S. ground forces killed everyone in sight. Abd Salem said the group's parked cars were draped in fluorescent banners the U.S. military had provided to identify them as Sunni allies.

The U.S. military said late Tuesday that "coalition forces observed several armed men in the target area and, perceiving hostile intent, called for supporting aircraft to engage." After the aircraft fired, "intelligence reports indicated the men unloaded an anti-aircraft weapon from the target and moved to a secondary location," after which U.S. ground forces engaged the men.

In the operations, 25 people were killed and 21 detained, said Maj. Brad Leighton, a spokesman for the Multi-National Force-Iraq. Two large weapons caches found included surface-to-surface missiles, rifles, pistols, grenades, mortars, components used to make improvised explosive devices and anti-aircraft weapons, Leighton said.

Also Wednesday, the military announced the deaths of four more U.S. soldiers. Two were killed in Baghdad on Wednesday, and two died from wounds suffered in Diyala province. The U.S. death toll since the Iraq war began in March 2003 is 3,864, according to an Associated Press count.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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