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US troops defend raid, say Iraqis faked "massacre"

Written by: Staff

BAGHDAD, Mar 28 (Reuters) US commanders in Iraq has accused powerful Shi'ite groups of moving the corpses of gunmen killed in battle to encourage accusations that US-led troops massacred unarmed worshippers in a mosque.

''After the fact, someone went in and made the scene look different from what it was. There's been huge misinformation,'' Lieutenant General Peter Chiarelli, the second-ranking U.S.

commander in Iraq, said yesterday.

He rejected the accusations of a massacre that prompted the Shi'ite-led government to demand US forces cede control of security but declined to spell out which group he believed moved the bodies.

Government-run television has shown footage of bodies lying without weapons in what Shi'ite ministers say is a mosque compound run by radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. The security minister accused Iraqi and US troops of killing 37 unarmed men.

Giving the first US military briefing on Sunday's events in Baghdad, Chiarelli said the raid by about 50 Iraqi special forces troops backed by some 25 US ''advisers'' had been the fruit of long intelligence work. But he said he did not know the religious affiliation of 16 ''insurgents'' who were killed.

An Iraqi was freed who had been taken hostage that day and threatened with death if he did not pay a 20,000 ransom dollar, he said. Three fighters were wounded and 18 other people detained.

Chiarelli insisted the compound was not a mosque but an office complex. Neighbours and aides to Sadr call it a mosque and say it was once offices for Saddam Hussein's Baath party.

''There was gunfire from every room,'' he said.

Major General J.D. Thurman, whose division controls Baghdad, said: ''If it was a mosque, why are they using it as a place to hold hostages?'' He added that weapons, including 34 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades were also found.

ADVISERS Chiarelli stood by the U.S. account, disputed by Sadr aides and other Shi'ite leaders but which is broadly in line with police reports and some local witnesses who spoke of a fierce gun battle around the site.

He said an Iraqi special forces unit with about 25 U.S.

advisers, trainers, medical and bomb disposal crew in support arrived to raid the site at nightfall and were immediately fired on from a number of buildings around the compound.

The troops ''cleared the compound'', he said, killing or capturing those inside. ''It was Iraqi forces who did the fighting,'' he stressed. Thurman said U.S. helicopters were in the air at the time but only in support of another mission.

All the dead were killed by Iraqi fire, Chiarelli said.

Chiarelli identified the hostage as a dental technician and said: ''He was shown a picture of his daughter and told if he didn't pay 20,000 dollar he was going to be dead the next day.'' Asked about the apparent surprise, not to say disapproval, of the operation in the ruling Shi'ite Alliance bloc, Chiarelli said: ''It was coordinated through military channels. Not every operation we run is coordinated with every politician in Iraq.'' Though he declined to be drawn on the possible involvement of Sadr's Mehdi Army militia, whose political leaders have led condemnation of the raid, Chiarelli said: ''I think the backlash has been caused by the folks who set the scene up.'' Both generals praised the unidentified Iraqi unit involved for its record of discipline and minimising the use of force.

Chiarelli said: ''They don't go in guns blazing.'' Reuters PDS VP0440

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