US says Iraq air strike kills 11, mostly civilians

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BAGHDAD, Oct 23 (Reuters) The US military said it killed 11 people in a helicopter attack on a group of men seen planting a roadside bomb north of Baghdad today, but police and residents said the dead were farmers, women and children.

The US military acknowledged that six of those killed were civilians and said it regretted their deaths, but it blamed militants for using civilians as a shield.

The air strike was the third resulting in civilian deaths in two weeks and comes as the US military's reliance on airpower to target militants is under increased scrutiny from the Iraqi government and the United Nations mission in Iraq.

UN officials have expressed concern at the number of civilians killed in air strikes and said more care must be taken in military operations to protect them.

Major Peggy Kageleiry, the US military spokeswoman in northern Iraq, said an Apache attack helicopter had spotted five men planting a roadside bomb near the city of Samarra, 100 km north of the Iraqi capital.

The helicopter ''engaged'' the men, who then ran into a nearby house that was also targeted. Kageleiry said an initial investigation showed five ''military age males'' and six civilians were killed in the strike.

''They chose to go into a house with civilians to hide. They endangered folks on the ground by doing that. We send condolences to the families of those victims and we regret any loss of life,'' she said.

HOUSE DESTROYED Police and residents of the village of Djila, however, gave a different account, saying the group of men attacked by the helicopter were three farmers who had left their homes at 660 IST to irrigate their fields.

Two were killed in the initial air strike and the survivor ran back to his home, where other residents then gathered, said Abdul al-Rahman Iyadeh, a relative of the victims.

The second air strike completely destroyed the house, killing 14 people, including six members of the Ibrahim Jassim family and five from another, he told Reuters.

A local police officer, Captain Abdullah al-Isawi, put the death toll at 16 -- seven men, six women and three children.

The US military is already investigating another deadly air strike in which nine children and six women were killed on October 11 during an operation targeting senior leaders of al Qaeda 80 km (50 miles) northwest of Baghdad.

The Iraqi government has also protested against a weekend raid by US forces in the Shi'ite stronghold of Sadr City, in which US troops backed by attack helicopters said they killed 49 gunmen. Police put the toll at 13 and said they were all civilians, including two toddlers.

Critics say US forces often call in air strikes on buildings where militants are believed to be hiding without taking reasonable care to find out who else might be inside. The US military says militants deliberately hide among civilians.

REUTERS SZ PM1820

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