Kurds say 18 die in `friendly fire' attack

U.S. disputes numbers, begins investigation of accident in northern Iraq

War in Iraq

April 07, 2003|By Paul Watson | Paul Watson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

PIRDAWD, Iraq -- American aircraft struck a convoy of Kurdish fighters and U.S. Special Forces yesterday in a "friendly fire" attack that Kurds said killed at least 18 and wounded dozens more.

U.S. military officials said they were investigating what could be one of the deadliest such accidents of the war on Iraq. A statement from Central Command said the allied aircraft were providing close air support near the village of Kalak, about 30 miles southeast of Mosul.

The number of casualties was unclear. Citing early reports, U.S. officials said one civilian may have been killed and that an American soldier, a Kurdish soldier and four civilians were among the injured.

But Kurdish officials said the attack set at least 12 vehicles on fire, killing 17 fighters and a civilian translator for the British Broadcasting Corp. Some of the shrapnel holes in the destroyed vehicles were as big as dinner plates, they said. Among the injured, they said, were some of the top military leadership of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which controls northwestern Iraq.

John Simpson, a BBC reporter who was following the military convoy and who suffered minor shrapnel wounds, confirmed the scale of the attack.

"All of the vehicles are on fire, there are bodies burning all around me, bits of bodies all around," he said. "The Americans saw this convoy and they bombed it. They hit their own people."

Regional commander Kakameen Mustafa, who was in the convoy and survived the airstrike without a scratch, said a U.S. fighter bomber fired a single missile. U.S. forces shouldn't be faulted, he said.

"It's something ordinary, and we don't blame them," he said. "This is war, and everything happens in war."

It was at least the second time that U.S. warplanes have mistakenly attacked KDP fighters. On Tuesday, as Kurdish shepherds and their families slept in the village of Qurshaqlu, at least one jet dropped about 12 bombs, apparently targeting an antiaircraft gun on a nearby ridge that the fighters kept for defense against Iraqi troops. A 7-year-old boy was seriously wounded in the bombing.

Among more than 45 people injured in yesterday's incident was Wajy Barzani, the KDP fighters' top commander. He was hospitalized in critical condition, suffering from what Kurdish sources described as a severe head wound.

When his condition had stabilized at Arbil's Emergency Hospital for war wounded, Barzani was airlifted on a U.S. military plane for treatment in Germany, Zebari said.

The commander is the younger brother of the KDP's prime minister, Massoud Barzani.

According to a dispatch from Jeffrey Fleishman, a Los Angeles Times reporter in Qayarfary in northern Iraq, scores of Islamic militants who had retreated into the mountains during recent attacks by U.S. forces are trudging through snow and across fields to surrender to Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq. They had been denied entry into neighboring Iran.

The Ansar al-Islam guerrillas are considered terrorists, would-be suicide bombers with ties to al-Qaida. But as 15 of them sat in the dimness of a cinder-block house here yesterday, some with frostbitten toes, they seemed more scared than dangerous.

Some are boys. Others said they had never fired at an enemy.

Upon surrendering yesterday, their weapons were seized, their watches and combs confiscated. And in their cracked and muddy shoes, they were put on a bus and shipped to jail.

More than 300 Ansar guerrillas have agreed to surrender in the coming days to the Kurdish government, according to Abdullah Haji Mahmood, a commander in the Kurdish Socialist Party who negotiated the deal.

Paul Watson writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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