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Thursday, September 16, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Copters did fire at Iraqi crowd, Army says

By Patrick J. McDonnell
Los Angeles Times

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BAGHDAD, Iraq — U.S. commanders acknowledged yesterday that their helicopters fired seven rockets and 30 high-caliber machine-gun rounds onto a crowded Baghdad street earlier this week during a battle that killed 16 Iraqis and sparked a heated debate about how civilians often become the victims of U.S. firepower.

Army officials called the helicopter attack an appropriate response after U.S. soldiers were fired on by insurgents from the vicinity of a Bradley fighting vehicle set ablaze by a suicide car bomb.

"The actions taken by our soldiers and pilots were clearly within their rights," said Maj. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, commander of the Army's 1st Cavalry Division, which patrols Baghdad.

U.S. officials said it was unclear what caused the casualties — volleys from the helicopters, explosions from ammunition in the Bradley, or insurgent fire. "We regret the loss of any innocent civilians," said Col. Jim McConville, who heads the aviation brigade for the 1st Cavalry Division.

The carnage along the capital's Haifa Street has enraged many Iraqis who say that U.S. troops often attack without provocation and fire randomly when attacked.

On Sunday, television viewers around the world saw footage of the Haifa Street battle that also injured 61 Iraqis. Among the dead was Mazen al-Tumeizi, a reporter for Al Arabiya, the Arab-language satellite network, who was taping a report with the smoking U.S. armored vehicle in the background when an explosion occurred and he was hit.

Military commanders acknowledged yesterday that earlier U.S. accounts that the helicopters were providing cover for escaping U.S. troops were not correct. The troops had already retreated to a strong point more than 400 yards away by the time the two Kiowa Warrior helicopters appeared in the sky above Haifa Street at about 7:30 a.m., commanders said. The six wounded soldiers from the Bradley had been evacuated.

The two helicopters made three passes each and fired a total of seven rockets and squeezed off 30 rounds of .50-caliber machine-gun fire, said McConville. He said soldiers in the helicopters were aiming at "insurgent or terrorist forces firing at our aircraft," and not at civilians gawking and poking at the disabled fighting vehicle.

Officials also disavowed an earlier U.S. account that a rocket was launched at the Bradley to destroy it and ensure it did not fall into enemy hands. The fire was aimed solely at armed insurgents in the vicinity of the disabled vehicle, the commanders said.
 
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Several survivors interviewed yesterday at Kerama Hospital in Baghdad disputed the U.S. account.

"I saw no one among the people near or on top of the burning tank who had a weapon," said Alaa Naeem Amlwan, 30, who had shrapnel removed from his abdomen and was being treated for a broken leg. "The Americans felt angry when they saw the people celebrating and carrying the black banner of Tawhid and Jihad."

Hamoodi Abdul-Hadi, 24, said gunmen who had earlier fired at U.S. ground troops had fled the area by the time the helicopters arrived.

"There were people surrounding the burnt tank," Abdul-Hadi said, "but the fighters had left the scene by then."

Special correspondents Raheem Salman and Salar Jaff in Baghdad contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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