BAIJI, Iraq (Reuters) â€” A US air strike on a house in northern Iraq killed six members of an Iraqi family, prompting anger on Tuesday among minority Sunni Arab political leaders and the local police chief.
The US military said aircraft bombed the building in the northern oil refining town of Baiji late Monday when three men were spotted from the air going into the house after digging a hole that troops suspected was for a roadside bomb.
Baiji police said six people were killed and three wounded when the house was obliterated. Among the casualties were two police officers, one killed, the other wounded, they added. The youngest casualty was 14 the local police chief said.
â€œI absolutely confirm there were no terrorists in this house,â€ police chief Colonel Sufyan Mustafa told Reuters.
â€œEven if there had been, why didn’t they surround the area and detain the terrorists instead?â€
Grievances over US military action are widespread among the Sunni Arab minority that dominated Iraq under Saddam Hussein, and the latest controversy comes as Sunnis wrangle for a role in a new government following an election last month that their leaders said was rigged by the Shiite majority.
A handful of international election monitors are coming to Baghdad to try to help resolve the row over the results, but the electoral commission said again it was confident only an insignificant number of ballots would be ruled out for fraud and that it would be able to confirm results within a few days.
A statement issued by the US 101st Airborne Division in response to an inquiry about the deaths in Baiji said soldiers monitoring film from a reconnaissance drone spotted three men apparently digging a hole by a road around 9:00pm (1800 GMT).
Pilots were alerted, the military said: â€œThe individuals… were followed from the air to a nearby building. Coalition forces employed precision-guided munitions on the structure.â€
A US spokesmen gave no casualty figure and had no immediate comment on whether a roadside bomb had been found.
A local official of the biggest Sunni Arab political group, the Iraqi Islamic Party, called for demonstrations: â€œThis is a historic crime and another catastrophe for the people of Baiji.
â€œIf there were gunmen or criminals in that house, is it right to blow up the whole family?â€ said Ali Al Ajeel.
Hussein Al Falluji, a prominent lawyer and a national leader of the Sunni-dominated Iraqi Accordance Front, said: â€œOnce again the occupiers have shown their barbarism. They never learn from their mistakes… People’s resentment is increasing.â€
Last week, the military said an air strike killed 10 people near the nearby town of Hawija after pilots tracked men who had been spotted digging by a roadside.
Baiji has seen considerable rebel violence, including efforts by insurgents to disrupt oil and fuel flows through its refinery, the biggest in Iraq. The closure of the refinery last month has caused serious shortages in fuel across the country, although the plant reopened again late on Monday.
Vital exports from northern Iraq to Turkey’s Mediterranean port of Ceyhan remain at a standstill, data this week showed Iraqi oil exports in December were the lowest since the war and roughly half the sanctions-hit level under Saddam.
US forces have used air power increasingly of late.
Official data show the average in the last quarter of 2005 was 54 strikes per month, compared with five strikes per month in the first quarter, the recent rate was comparable to the 56 per month seen in the second half of 2004 when troops fought a Shiite uprising and stormed the Sunni city of Fallujah.
US commanders say they make every effort to minimise the risk to civilians in air raids.
The US government says it will start withdrawing its 160,000 ground troops from Iraq as Iraqi forces become more able to combat revolt against the Baghdad authorities. But analysts expect US air power to remain a key factor in the conflict.
One of Iraq’s electoral commissioners, Adel Al Lamy, said only 50 to 70 ballot boxes out of some 31,000 used in the Dec. 15 parliamentary election would be scrapped because of irregularities and this would not greatly affect any results.
Preliminary tallies last month showed the ruling Shiite Islamist Alliance close to maintaining its narrow majority despite a strong turnout among Sunni Arabs, who had boycotted the vote to the interim parliament in January.