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Iraqi official: Civilian deaths a cost of war

Says Al Qaeda strategy led to Sunni fatalities

BAGHDAD - Iraq's Shi'ite-dominated government said the killings of 15 women and children in a US attack on a Sunni area were a "sorrowful matter," but emphasized yesterday that civilian deaths are unavoidable in the fight against Al Qaeda in Iraq.

The comments by government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh appeared to be tacit approval of Thursday's raid northwest of Baghdad. They suggested the Iraqi government holds the American military to a different standard when it comes to assaults against suspected Sunni insurgents.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government has complained loudly to US military officials when Shi'ite civilians have been killed in American attacks against Mahdi Army militants, and tensions have been high over recent shootings of Iraqi civilians by private security contractors protecting US-government-funded work.

Yesterday, Dabbagh said the area targeted by American forces was a known base for insurgents, whom he accused of hiding among civilians.

"The issue of 15 civilian victims is a sorrowful matter, but confronting Al Qaeda is an essential and vital issue," he said in a telephone interview. "They shouldn't have any place among the civilians."

"We are in a war against those diabolical and wicked groups; therefore during military operations there might be innocents killed," he added. "The victims are an unavoidable matter in fighting Al Qaeda."

The assault targeting senior Al Qaeda in Iraq leaders near Lake Tharthar, about 50 miles northwest of the capital, inflicted one of the heaviest civilian death tolls in the offensive against the terror network in recent months. The military said 19 suspected insurgents, six women, and nine children died, and two suspected insurgents, one woman, and three children were wounded.

Rear Admiral Greg Smith, a US military spokesman, said the military would examine surveillance footage and interview troops to confirm the sequence of events. "We certainly will do a very thorough investigation to ensure the force used was appropriate," he said.

"We do what we can to ensure that we minimize to the greatest extent possible the loss of life of civilians," Smith said. "But in instances where your forces are being fired upon, you're going to use all necessary means to reduce that threat."

He accused Al Qaeda fighters of using their relatives and other innocent people to shield themselves.

The military said ground troops backed by attack aircraft acted on intelligence reports about an Al Qaeda meeting at an initial location near the man-made lake, which straddles the volatile Sunni Anbar and Salahuddin provinces. Four insurgents were killed in that strike, but several suspects fled to another location, the military said.

American troops pursuing them faced small-arms fire, and a subsequent air strike caused most of the casualties.

Tensions are running high in Iraq over the killings of civilians by US forces and private security guards.

A representative of the country's top Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, urged the parliament to take up the issue of unjustified killings of Iraqi civilians, especially by the armed teams from mostly Western companies.

"Iraqi blood has become the cheapest thing in Iraq," Sheik Abdul Mahdi al-Karbalai said in a sermon yesterday in the Shi'ite holy city of Karbala. "So we demand the Iraqi parliament meet to discuss the devaluing of Iraqi blood and souls by these companies."

Al Qaeda in Iraq had announced stepped-up attacks during Ramadan, and there has been a spike in car bombings and other attacks usually blamed on the terror network.

In yesterday's deadliest attack, a parked car bomb exploded near a police patrol in a central Baghdad shopping district, killing four people, including two police officers, police said.

Separately, a bomb planted among toys in a cart left near a children's playground in the religiously mixed city of Tuz Khormato, 130 miles north of Baghdad, killed two people and wounded 17, police said. One of the dead was a child.

In Washington yesterday, House Democrats said they want an official rebuke of the State Department because of its unwillingness to talk publicly about whether the Iraqi government is corrupt.

"It is essential that Congress and the people of the United States know the extent of corruption in the Iraqi government and whether corruption is fueling the insurgency and endangering members of the Unites States Armed Forces," Democrats wrote in the resolution presented by Representative Henry Waxman, Democrat of California.

President Bush is seeking nearly $190 billion to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for another year.

The State Department acknowledges that corruption is a serious problem in Iraq and has provided Waxman's committee with the information it has requested, department spokesman Tom Casey said. But the administration believes that details should stay classified because it could hurt US efforts in Iraq, he said.

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