BAGHDAD - American Special Operations forces shot to death the son and nephew of the governor of Salahuddin province during a raid yesterday in the northern city of Bayji, the latest in a series of operations that have resulted in the deaths of civilians or close associates of Iraqi government officials.
The governor, Hamed al-Qaisi, threatened to resign in protest and said he would suspend cooperation with U.S. officials.
The shootings come at a sensitive time in negotiations between United States and Iraqi officials over the terms of a new security agreement. The most contentious obstacle has been an Iraqi demand that U.S. troops no longer be immune from Iraqi criminal laws, an ultimatum that Iraqi officials say has been spurred by unwarranted attacks on civilians. A new agreement is needed for U.S. troops to remain in Iraq after a U.N. mandate expires at the end of the year.
In another development yesterday, Iraq's Independent Electoral Commission disclosed that provincial elections originally planned for October would be delayed by several months.
"The original date of Oct. 1 has become a fantasy, because the parliament hasn't passed an election law yet," a senior election official said last night. "We still hope to have elections by the end of the year."
The provincial election plan - strongly backed by Washington - would shift more political powers to regions and is viewed by Sunni Arabs as path to gain more influence over decisions by the Shiite-led government.
U.S. officials see the voting as another key step in national reconciliation.
But any prolonged setbacks could slow momentum for giving Sunnis a greater voice in political and security affairs - considered essential to stabilize the country and maintain pressure on al-Qaida in Iraq and other militant factions. Lawmakers have not been able to agree on an election law because of feuding over the future control of Kirkuk, a multiethnic city, and other contentious issues.
Iraqi fury over civilian deaths erupted in late June when U.S. troops shot to death three bank employees on their way to work at Baghdad International Airport. The Americans called the three workers - two women and a man - "criminals" and said they had fired on troops. But in a rare rebuke to the U.S. military, the Iraqi armed forces general command called the shootings cold-blooded murder.
Iraqi and U.S. officials offered sharply different accounts of the attack yesterday in Bayji, 120 miles north of Baghdad, though the deputy provincial governor said U.S. officials had already apologized to both him and al-Qaisi, who was traveling in Turkey.
Aides to the governor said U.S. Special Operations forces broke into a house at 3 a.m. and shot and killed the governor's 17-year-old son, Hussam. A spokesman for the governor, Maj. Muthanna Ibrahim, said Hussam was shot in his head, stomach and shoulder while he slept.
Hussam's 23-year-old cousin, Uday Khalaf, awoke and tried to push open the door to Hussam's room, but he was also shot and killed by the U.S. troops, Ibrahim said.
The house is owned by Hussam's aunt, who is the mother of one of Hussam's female cousins; Hussam and his cousin had planned to get married soon, Ibahim said.
The deputy Salahuddin governor, Abdullah Jarabah, said there had been at least two other similar attacks in the area by U.S. troops. "These troops usually use excessive force when they conduct operations," he said.
The Salahuddin provincial council issued a statement condemning the attack as an indication of "how the American forces disregard the souls of Iraqi citizens."
The governor's son and nephew appeared not to have been the targets of the raid. Instead, the U.S. military command in Baghdad said the house had been raided to capture a "suspected al-Qaida in Iraq operative" and that a man "identified as the targeted individual charged coalition forces and was injured during the operation."
That suspect, who was not identified, was taken to a military hospital, and another "suspected terrorist" was arrested, according to a military statement.
In a separate statement responding to specific questions about the attack, the military said one of the men who was killed had been armed with an AK-47 automatic rifle and the other had had a pistol.
"Both gunmen were armed and presented hostile intent," the military said in the statement.
But the military also acknowledged that "there are no indications at this time" that the governor's son and nephew were members of al-Qaida in Mesopotamia, the name for a homegrown Sunni insurgent group that often serves as a catch-all description the military uses for Sunni gunmen who attack American forces.
"Coalition leaders will offer our condolences," the statement added.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.