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9 CIVILIAN DEATHS IN U.S. STRIKE STIR CONCERNS IN IRAQ

The deaths of nine civilians in a U.S. airstrike south of Baghdad have raised fresh concerns about the military's ability to distinguish friend from foe in a campaign to uproot insurgents from Sunni areas on the capital's doorstep.

Witnesses and Iraqi police said helicopters strafed a house Saturday after confusing U.S.-allied Sunni fighters with extremists in the deadliest case of mistaken identity since November. The U.S. military on Monday confirmed the civilian deaths, but gave few other details of the Army gunship attack.

The bloodshed also points to the wider complications for U.S.-led offensives against insurgents in populated areas: As the firepower increases so do the risks of claiming innocent lives. And each such death potentially frays the alliances between the Pentagon and new Sunni allies, widely known as Awakening Councils.

It was one of these groups that apparently was caught in the clash near Iskandariyah, about 30 miles south of Baghdad - an area where U.S.-led forces stepped up an air and ground assault last month against al-Qaida in Iraq.

A farmer who lives near the site, Issa Mahdi. said the Americans retaliated after a mortar attack against a U.S. convoy as it passed a checkpoint manned by Awakening Council fighters.

The soldiers apparently thought the barrage came from the Awakening Council fighters, who fled to a nearby house, Mahdi said.

The U.S. military said only that a child and eight other Iraqi civilians were killed and three others, including two children, were wounded as U.S. troops pursued suspected al-Qaida militants.

American officers met with a local sheik representing citizens in the area and expressed condolences to the families of those killed, according to a brief e-mailed statement.

Some Sunni leaders worry about future cracks in Sunni cooperation with U.S. forces. "Al-Qaida could exploit such mistrust in order to win back some Awakening Council members who defected from it," said Sunni lawmaker Salman al-Jumaili.

In November, a leader of one of the Awakening Councils said U.S. soldiers killed dozens of his fighters during a 12-hour battle. The U.S. military admitted killing 25 men, but said they were insurgents operating "in the target area" where al-Qaida was believed to be hiding.

FAST FACTS

Developments

Attack by Turkey: In northern Iraq, Turkish warplanes attacked 70 Kurdish rebel targets on Monday as part of a U.S.-backed campaign to chip away at guerrilla strength without a ground offensive across the border. The Turkish government has fought for more than two decades against Kurdish rebels who seek autonomy in southeastern Turkey.

Doubt on refugees: The Bush administration conceded Monday it may not meet its goal to admit 12,000 Iraqi refugees by the end of September, although officials stressed that remained their target.

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